Can You Burn Brush in Your Backyard?

Burn Brush

Raking up leaves is a tiring task, especially if leaves keep on falling in your backyard. Most homeowners’ fall weekends are spent collecting or gathering scattered piles of leaves that a passing breeze has destroyed. This makes them think about burning the leaves as their last resort. However, burning leaves is easier said than done since some cities implement strict rules prohibiting burning anything in your backyard, even if it just leaves.

Burning leaves isn’t an ideal solution to clean up your backyard because aside from this practice being banned in your area, it is also dangerous to your health and the environment. Mulching and composting are great alternatives to make use of your piled leaves.

In this article, we will tackle why burning leaves isn’t worth the risk and when backyard fires are allowed. We will also be providing alternatives to burning fallen leaves.


Burning Leaves: When Are Backyard Fires Allowed?

One of the major causes of air pollution is burning woods, rubbish, and other toxic materials in incinerators and open fires. In some global areas, backyard burning and unauthorized incineration are prohibited and punishable by law.

Backyard fires are only allowed in certain situations, which include:

  • Eligible hazard reduction work
  • Agricultural reasons and purposes
  • Backyard barbecues
  • Camping
  • Authorized fire-fighting training

Burning leaves seem to be a convenient way to clean your backyard, but your local government might be against it. Not known to many, burning leaves may incur damages and accidents that can be difficult to manage.

According to the National Park Service, 85% of wildland fires in the U.S start because of humans, and burning leaves and other debris are the major items that cause wildfires. Besides, burning isn’t environmentally friendly and harms our ozone layer.

Here are other reasons why burning leaves isn’t worth the risk.

1. It Is Banned

Burning or incinerating can be illegal in your municipality. For safety purposes, check the fire code in your city or municipality for relevant restrictions to starting backyard fires. Local governments usually differentiate:

  • Close burning, which is done in a confined structure such as a stove or chimney.
  • Open burning, which is done in an open and exposed area on the ground, wherein fire byproducts are released directly into the atmosphere.

Most municipalities allow closed burning but prohibit open burning because the latter causes more air pollution and can lead to a strong and uncontainable fire. However, some places allow open leaf burning, although they might require a permit that allows fires of limited sizes in specific locations, far away from residences, and during certain months.

Local governments issue laws about backyard burning based on seasons or take effect only when conditions are ready for high pollution, wildfire risks, and public health issues. Even on a calm day, people should check if any rule limits smoke or fires before burning leaves or any other debris.

2. It Is Hazardous to Your Health and the Environment

Federal governments have no laws affecting open burning but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seizes communities and states in studying the effects of open burning on the environment.

Previous research conducted by the EPA has measured emission factors for burning fallen leaves, microscopic solids or tiny liquid droplets people inhale or particulates, carbon monoxide, and other harmful chemicals and gasses that are released in the environment.

The smoke from burning leaves can also irritate your eyes, nose, and throat. Also, being exposed to the carbon monoxide kicked up by burning leaves and embers can reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood and lungs. This can eventually lead to respiratory issues, coughing, and wheezing that sometimes persist.


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Understanding Open Burns

Open burning is an activity performed outdoors. Whether you are burning materials allowed to be burnt or prohibited materials such as chemicals, toxic waste, or trash, setting your backyard waste aflame falls under the very restricted residential open burning rules.

This also follows different rules compared to the ones applied for agricultural operations and protected land burning, like in forests and parks. Open burning is a dangerous activity, so be sure to check with your local area to know who regulates it and the specific rules you have to follow.


Tips If You Must Burn in Your Backyard

Burning leaves should be your last resort. Before you burn them, make sure you check your local government laws and know how to safely burn leaves.

Below are some safety tips for burning leaves in your backyard.

Choose a Proper Burning Site

In some municipalities, burning leaves and other yard waste is prohibited, even on your private property. Avoid setting leaves and backyard waste on fire in public places, fields, or woodlands. Instead, plan on burning them on a vegetation-free ground, at least 50 feet away from any residences. The farther away from dwellings, the better.

Burn barrels are safer than open piles. If you are burning leaves in a pile, make sure it isn’t higher nor wider than 4 feet. The minimum vertical clearance is better or should be at least three times the height of the barrel or leaf pile. Secure the perimeter with bricks or cinder blocks and clear an 8-to-10-foot-wide barrier of the ground to contain the fire.

A safe reminder: never use a fire starter or gasoline to start burning leaves or yard waste. This can lead to an uncontainable fire and emit vapors that cause explosions.

Use a Burn Barrel

The ideal way to burn leaves is using a large metal drum. It is a much safer and enclosed method. Consider using a burn barrel, which you can find at your local home depot store or on Amazon.

To use it, fill it with leaves and secure the lid to minimize the smoke and its health hazards, then ignite it to incinerate the leaves.

You can also build a burn barrel using a heavy-duty 55-gallon metal drum. Punch at least 10 to 15 large holes into it to favor air circulation. Also, add drain holes to the bottom of the barrel to help water run out when you dowse the remains.

Know What You Can and Can’t Burn

Some areas allow burning leaves, tree branches, and yard trimmings. Grilling or cooking is allowed as well, and fire pits or campfires should not contain materials coated with glue, paint, or stain.

When burning leaves, do not add oil, rubber, or treated wood products. Also, some cities prohibit burning paints, tires, petroleum-based products, and household chemicals. Many also prohibit burning paper, cardboard, and other home garbage.

Here are other materials you should never burn in your backyard:

  • Anything plastic
  • Accelerants
  • Magazines
  • Wooden pallets
  • Particleboards
  • Painted wood
  • Poison ivy
  • Oak
  • Sumac
  • Green or softwood
  • Trash

On the other hand, here are other materials you can burn in your backyard:

  • Pinion wood
  • Oak
  • Cedar
  • Hickory
  • Mesquite
  • Alder
  • Pecan
  • Fruits woods

Check With Your Local Authorities

Before setting leaves and other backyard waste aflame, check your local authorities’ regulations. They might allow you to burn some materials but might also prohibit burning leaves or other backyard waste.

Some cities might be implementing strict rules, like no-burning, based on drought and fire risks, which typically happen during the summer months. Some laws also restrict burning anything at all because of air pollution.

It is best to inform your local fire department of your plans in case your neighbor reports a smoke. Whatever laws your municipality or city allows, remember not to start a fire on a windy day.


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Alternatives to Burning Leaves

Dry leaves can be a little annoying and unpleasant in the eyes when piled up in your backyard. One of the most common options is to burn them in our backyard. However, as stated earlier, burning can pose danger and is prohibited in some areas.

Removing fallen leaves manually is a sure way to eliminate the harmful byproducts of combustion. But, fallen leaves can be converted into composting and mulching instead. They can return the essential organic matter to the soil, making your lawn and plants healthy.

You have a lot of options to consider besides burning your leaves. For instance, you can collect, and pile, and add them to your compost pile. If you still have more, you can mulch the thin layer. You can either leave the mulched leaves in a specific area or move them to use it as mulch in garden beds for the winter.

Here are some options you can implement instead of burning leaves in your backyard.

1. Chipping Leaves

Many wood chippers like to include shredding chutes that chop leaves and other soft backyard waste. Make sure to use a chipper with a designated shredding chute. On the contrary, a standard wood chipper chute is not recommended.

2. Compost Leaves

Composting leaves takes time before you get to see the benefits. If you have a backyard compost pile, adding leaves to it helps balance the composting process in your compost pile. Make sure to break down the leaves into smaller pieces before putting them in the pile as smaller pieces of leaves can speed up the composting process.

In a bin or in the corner of your yard that gets a sufficient amount of sun and drainage, you can begin composting a pile of leaves. Add nitrogen-rich organic matter, like grass clippings or food waste at the top. Then, build the pile up to 3 feet high and 4 feet wide.

Turn your compost monthly and water it from time to time during the dry season. Compost requires moisture to decompose, and you’ll know if it’s ready to use when it is dark like soil and crumbles easily.

3. Mulching Leaves

Mulching leaves is a very simple thing to do. Run a lawnmower over a thin layer of leaves. Once it breaks down into small pieces, like a size of a dime, it serves as a beneficial mulch for your lawn and insects.

Avoid leaving thick layers, especially whole leaves. Matted leaves prevent sunlight and air from cycling through. If you have a lot of leaves in your backyard, invest in a mulcher. It comes as standalone mulchers, handheld tools, and special mower attachments.

4. Pick Up Leaves

Pick up and gather leaves soon after they fall using rakes and bags. Fresh fallen leaves are less crumbly and contain more nitrogen. Choose a rake with an ergonomic handle and a large tine spread for more efficient sweeps.

Leaf blowers are of great help when gathering leaves and make the work quicker. Although, gas-powered leaf blowers are not as sustainable as rakes, although both pieces of equipment have their advantages and disadvantages.

The easiest way to collect fallen leaves is to rake and put them in biodegradable plastic bags. You can also use sturdy paper bags that are designed for leaf collection or reusable and eco-friendly garden bags.

If your last resort is to burn leaves to keep your backyard clean, make sure you know how to burn leaves safely. It is highly recommended to follow your local laws of burning leaves in your backyard.



A carpet of fallen leaves in your backyard can be an eyesore, but burning leaves should be the last resort for cleanup. It is not good for the environment and it can also lead to wildfires that can cause massive and lasting damages that are difficult to recover from. It may also be prohibited by the law and can lead to fines and penalties. Your neighbors will also like you less if you flood your neighborhood with smoke. 

Instead of burning leaves, consider the alternatives mentioned above, like composting or mulching, and be knowledgeable of the services and laws of your city regarding how to dispose of leaves. As we have discussed in this article, there are a lot of ways for you to get rid of fallen leaves that are safer and better for the environment. These may require a little bit more effort, but the benefits that you will be getting are definitely worth the hassle.

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