Learn These Firepit Safety Tips to Build a Bonfire the Right Way

It's firepit season! Check out our tips for placing and enjoying this backyard must-have.

Picture it: The sky dims. The moon peeks through wispy clouds. Leaves rustle. That cool, crisp air can mean only one thing: It's firepit season! A backyard fire is an instant partymaker, offering guests a place to chat, nibble, and linger.

"Firepits are the new coffee table," says Oma Blaise Ford, executive editor for Better Homes & Gardens. Backyard fire features have been hot for several years, but they became near mandatory during the pandemic when they allowed us to gather safely outside with a few friends—not just on summer or fall nights but also well into winter.

But before you gather the kindling and strike a match, there are a few important firepit safety tips to know. We'll walk you through the best location for your firepit (like this Better Homes & Gardens Bronze Firepit, $340, Walmart), how to start a fire, and other to-dos for a successful bonfire night.

family seated around the fire pit
Dana Gallagher

Where to Place a Firepit

Check local codes and restrictions regarding allowable types, placement, and use of firepits. (Some require features like cooking grates, for example.) Also, check to see if having a firepit affects your homeowners insurance. Then follow these best practices for where to put your firepit: Place your firepit somewhere level, free of any flammable debris, and protected from wind. Stone patios, brick pavers, and gravel make a sturdy fire-resistant base, but you can also buy heat-shielding mats that will protect your decking and grass from heat damage.

fire site guide illustration
Illustration by Agnese Bicocchi

As a general rule, you should place a firepit about 10 to 20 feet away from your house. Choose a location that is also at least 15 feet away from trees and allows 7 feet of clearance between the firepit and chairs. You can also space lanterns around your ring of seating to cast a little extra light for guests to move around safely.

chopped wood and matches in bucket
Dana Gallagher

How to Start a Fire in a Firepit

"I've long been a fire-tending enthusiast, but I honed my skills by reading How to Build a Fire by J. Scott Donahue, ($30, Amazon)," says home editor Katy Kiick Condon. We tapped Donahue to share his no-fail formula: Hair + Finger + Arm. The "hair" is the tinder, the fire's base and key to success. Wrap fine strands of straw, dry grass, bits of paper or cotton, and even dryer lint into a fist-size ball; keep it loose—you want air gaps in there. The next layer is kindling, twigs no thicker than a finger. Then fuel with logs the size of your arm. To put it all together, use one of Donahue's suggested arrangements.

firewood illustration
Illustration by Agnese Bicocchi

Tepee Method

Lean kindling sticks against each other over a mound of tinder. Leave small openings or doorways so you maintain good airflow and can add tinder as needed. Light the tinder, and once the sticks catch fire, layer on more kindling, then another tepee of larger logs, keeping the doorways open.

log cabin method
Illustration by Agnese Bicocchi

Log Cabin

This is a good method if it's a breezy day or you want to keep your log structure lower. Stack small logs Lincoln Logs-style around a ball of tinder. Across the middle, add a few kindling sticks. Repeat for a few layers, making sure to build in plenty of gaps for air and adding more tinder.

However you build, the key is not to overdo it. Be sure to create spaces so oxygen can reach the fire. And once the fire is lit, don't leave it unattended.

How to Extinguish a Firepit

At the end of the night, extinguish the fire completely before walking away. First, consult the manufacturer's instructions for the best way to extinguish your firepit. If possible, let the fire burn down naturally until the wood has almost completely turned to ash. Plan ahead and stop adding fuel to the fire about an hour before you plan to call it a night.

Alternatively, you can use a shovel or a large stick to gently spread out the remaining coals or chunks of wood. This helps them cool down faster. Then, douse the fire with a bucket of water, holding the bucket several feet above the ashes to avoid scalding yourself with hot steam. Stir the ashes and continue adding water until all material inside the firepit has been soaked and any sizzling sounds have stopped. Check the area around your firepit for stray embers and sparks before you leave.

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