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Burning Leaves, Pile, Leaves iStock

The palette of gold, orange, and red that paints the trees during autumn can be something to look forward to all year. It’s what comes after that you greet less eagerly: fallen leaves.

Handling a yard full of fallen leaves can feel like quite a chore. While it’s possible to pack leaves from smaller, lightly wooded yards into bags, that might not be practical for a large plot of land. Instead of investing a small fortune on leaf bags and a ton of time bagging, you might consider burning.

Burning leaves is a fast and effective way to remove tree debris from your yard. A quick internet search will reveal all of the reasons not to burn leaves, and there are a few worth noting. However, burning leaves is a safe method when done correctly. With a little background and some consideration, leaf-burning may become your new method of choice.

Local Laws and Permits

The first question to consider is whether you’re even allowed to burn leaves in your area. There are two types of burning: closed and open. Closed burning describes the sorts of safe burns inside a home, which would be done in fireplaces, and wood pellet stoves. Open burning describes burn piles, bonfires, and burn pits.

While most areas do allow closed burning, open burning is another story. Some areas, particularly those with higher population density or greater risk of wildfires, won’t allow any open burning at all.

If you’re aiming to burn leaves where you live, you may need a permit. Your local municipality will provide information as to its requirements or point you to the proper permitting department. Don’t skip this step. Permits help local authorities keep track of burns taking place in their jurisdictions, for emergency response and safety purposes. Also, getting caught without one can be expensive.

Health and Environmental Impacts

There’s no disputing that breathing smoke is detrimental for your health. Exposure to airborne particles can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, and can impair your breathing ability. Burning also produces carbon monoxide (the same gas that your home’s CO detector monitors). With excessive exposure, the carbon monoxide could displace the oxygen in your blood and cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Beyond health concerns, there are environmental and safety impacts to think about. For one, gases produced during burning can create a ground-level ozone environment that’s unsafe for wildlife and sensitive plants. But by far, the greatest concern about open burning is its potential to go bad quickly. An uncontained fire can grow out of control very quickly, with catastrophic results. In fact, humans cause nearly 85% of wildfires, many of which start as burning leaf piles.

What You Can and Can’t Burn

While you certainly can burn leaves safely, it’s important to understand what’s okay to burn and what’s not. You should only burn debris from trees, including leaves, twigs, and smaller branches. These materials burn relatively quickly and retain very little heat when extinguished, making them safe to burn.

Burning processed materials like pallets, building lumber, or cardboard is a no-go. Also, avoid thicker branches and logs, as they retain their heat and can cause flare-ups after you walk away from an extinguished pile.

It’s also worth avoiding any branches you suspect may have played host to poison ivy. Burning urushiol (the oily sap in poison ivy, oak, and sumac) can cause allergic reactions affecting your skin, throat, nasal passages, and respiratory tract. Inhalation of urushiol particles can inflame the lungs and cause severe respiratory complications.

Required Tools and Equipment

Before you start burning leaves, you need to have the right gear on hand. Here’s a list of the important tools and equipment for burning leaves:

  • Leather work gloves. Cotton burns and polyester melts, so a tough pair of leather gloves is essential.
  • Metal rake. A metal rake won’t melt or bend as easily as a plastic rake, so keep one on hand to help manage your pile.
  • Garden hose. You need to keep a water source nearby. Not only can you use it to put out any accidental burns, but you can also create a perimeter by soaking the ground around your fire.
  • Hose nozzle. Your hose can’t help you if it’s not charged. A quality hose nozzle will help you stay at the ready.

You might also consider a respirator and safety glasses. The respirator will help you avoid breathing in smoke as you tend the pile, and safety glasses will keep soot and particles from floating into your eyes.

How to Burn Leaves Safely

Burning leaves is riskier than bagging them for recycling, but there are ways to do it safely. Here are some important safety tips for burning leaves.

  1. Choose a safe location for your burn pile. Generally speaking, 50 feet from a structure is best. Also, be sure there are no overhead hazards like low-hanging tree limbs or utility wires to contend with. If you have a burn pit or burning barrel, it’s a good idea to use it. Otherwise, an area of dirt that’s clear of vegetation is best.
  2. Keep your burn pile small and manageable. It might seem inefficient, but a small pile is much safer than a larger pile that can be hard to contain and extinguish.
  3. Keep a safe distance between your unburnt leaves and burn pile. It’s also a good idea to position your burn pile downwind from your unburnt leaves to prevent windswept embers from igniting them. Also, stand so you can see both piles at the same time without inhaling smoke.
  4. Only burn on clear days with little to no wind. The clear sky will allow the smoke to dissipate quickly, and the low wind will help keep your fire contained.

Alternatives to Burning Leaves

If burning leaves isn’t your thing, consider alternative approaches. Composting is an option; adding leaf litter to your compost pile will allow it to break down into rich soil over time. If a messy yard doesn’t bother you, create lawn-fertilizing leaf mulch with a mower-mounted mulching blade and allow it to break down into your soil.

Finally, bagging leaves for your town’s recycling program is always a smart and eco-friendly option.