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FIRED UP: Safety, legality are key concerns when using fire pits or fireworks

June 30, 2013

Russell Jennings, of Woonsocket, looks over the large variety of fireworks for sale at the fireworks tent in the Rite-Aid parking lot on Social Street in Woonsocket Thursday.

WOONSOCKET – Nothing says summer like sitting around the fire pit, sipping a cold brew and shooting off a bottle rocket or two.

But city homeowners who like a good backyard fire with their pyrotechnics should know there are specific rules and regulations when it comes to fireworks and fire pits.

According to Woonsocket Fire Chief Gary Lataille, fire pits and chimineas are legal in the city, as long as certain rules are followed.

“Fire pits are legal to have and there is a city ordinance that outlines these rules and guidelines,” says Lataille.

First of all, fire pits must be vented through a flue or chimney and they must have a screen or spark arrestor that covers it.

Fire pits also need to be a minimum of 15 feet from the nearest combustible, including the house and shed, and they need to be placed on a non-combustible surface like concrete or grass.

And that’s not all.

The city ordinance says backyard fire pits must be attended at all times by a person who has an available water supply – a connected hose – and fuel sources must be limited to clean, dry corded wood. In other words, you can’t burn leaves, brush or construction debris.

“The ordinance also says that the fire chief or the deputy fire chief can put out any fire at their discretion,” says Lataille.

But just because you can have a backyard fire in a fire pit doesn’t mean you can toss a match to that big pile of leaves and brush sitting in the corner of the backyard.

Unlike North Smithfield and other communities, Woonsocket does not allow open burning throughout the year. An open fire, Lataille says, is defined as any fire within which the products of combustion are emitted into the open air and are not directed through a stack or chimney.

“We get calls and complaints throughout the spring, summer and fall burning season,” says the chief. “I typically tell people who call after the fact that if they have a complaint that their neighbor is burning illegally or it’s out of control, they need to call us when it’s happening.”

“We really don’t have any right to go on to someone’s property when there is no fire. So, if someone sees an event at their neighbor’s house on a Friday night and they call us on Monday, we really don’t have the ability to go on to that property and say ‘hey, you can’t do that,” he added. “If you consider what you’re seeing is an emergency, call 911 and we will send a truck and make a determination. And if it’s illegal, we’ll extinguish it. That’s our response to that type of call.”

As for fireworks, Lataille says even though Rhode Island legalized the sale of fireworks in 2010, some fireworks remain illegal in the state. They include any fireworks that travel more than six feet into the air, or those that explode and make a loud bang sound.

Only sparklers and ground devices such as cylindrical fountains, cone fountains, illuminating torches, ground spinners and toy smoke devices are legal for consumer purchase in Rhode Island.

According to state law, a person must be 16 years of age to purchase and possess fireworks in Rhode Island.

“The General Assembly legalized some fireworks, which are non-aerial and non-exploding fireworks,” he said. “What is being sold is not supposed to explode. They may sizzle and pop, but they’re non-exploding and not meant to be projected into the air.”

With the Fourth of July just about a week away, there's no shortage of places in the city to buy fireworks for the big backyard celebrations. Drive down Social Street or up Diamond Hill Road over the next week and you’ll see temporary fireworks retail tents dedicated solely to selling the fireworks.

But these aren’t fly-by-night businesses looking to make a quick buck. Setting up these tents requires an application process, a state sales permit and a fireworks sales permit from City Hall. The vendors must also complete inspections by the Fire Department and city Inspector’s office. Signs prohibiting smoking in the tent are required as are signs notifying customers that I.Ds are checked.

“Our fire marshal does inspect the temporary tents because they are code restricted,” Lataille says. “For example, they need to have fire extinguishers and they can only have some much combined product powder at a location. They are also constantly monitored.”

“I can say that over the last couple of years the tent folks have been phenomenal,” he says. “These aren’t fly-by-nights. They are good stakeholders, neighbors and partners.”

Lataille says it’s harder to monitor what’s being sold in retail stores, many of which now carry a display stand of some sort offering ground sparklers of varying styles.

“The harder things are the stores that are just starting to get these products,” he said. “We’ve had some issues like a gas station taking in small deliveries and then storing them too close to a flammable source.”

Lataille says consumer fireworks, such as handheld and ground-based sparklers, still need to be used responsibly.

“We had one event last year that was attributed to fireworks where some kids were shooting these things from a window and before you know it the house caught fire. The bottom line is, be smart,” he said.

Follow Joseph Fitzgerald on Twitter at jofitz7

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