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Contact information
If you have concerns or questions about open burning, contact one of these programs within the DNR.
Air Management
Waste & Materials Management

Open burning overview

Open burning is defined as burning any combustible material outdoors without any air pollution controls in place. Burning in an unconfined area, a container or a pile are all considered to be open burning.

In many parts of Wisconsin - urban as well as rural areas - burning has been the waste disposal method of choice for a significant part of the population for many years. People choose to burn for a variety of reasons, including:

  • waste collection service is unavailable or inconvenient in their area;
  • they want to avoid the cost of waste collection services and/or landfill fees;
  • they want to keep wastes out of the landfill; and
  • "we've always done it this way."

Determining if you may burn and, if so, what you may burn can be confusing for Wisconsin citizens and businesses, and the topic raises many questions, including: Where and when can I burn? What are the health and environmental effects of burning on my property? May I burn if my property is located in a village or town? What waste materials am I allowed to burn? May I use burn barrels? Do I need to obtain a permit?

Situations where burning is allowed

Basically, DNR regulations for air management only allow open burning in certain specifically listed situations. And open burning that is allowed must be done in conformance with local ordinances and, if applicable, DNR’s forest fire control regulations.

For most situations where open burning is allowed, it is okay to burn clean, unpainted, untreated wood; clean, unrecyclable paper; and yard materials such as leaves, brush and grass clippings. Burning leaves and grass clippings is discouraged because of the adverse environmental impact of pollutants in smoke.

However, the burning of solid waste materials such as treated wood, plastic or rubber, oily substances, household garbage, wet rubbish and most all other trash is prohibited statewide, and local ordinances may be more stringent than statewide requirements. Also, the burning of recyclable paper or cardboard is prohibited.

For businesses, industries and municipalities, solid waste regulations only allow the open burning of clean wood waste or brush, and only after obtaining a “woodburning facility” license that establishes location, design and operating criteria. Any other burning of waste materials must be done with an approved incinerator.

When burning permits are required

Permits for open burning may be required by local ordinances. They also are required for open burning in areas subject to DNR’s forest fire control regulations, which apply to open burning in designated forest protection areas outside of incorporated cities and villages. These rules also spell out DNR’s authority for issuing emergency burning restrictions in those areas.

Use of burn barrels

Many local ordinances prohibit the use of burn barrels to dispose of waste materials. And there is evidence that burn barrels release significant amounts of unhealthy combustion byproducts, such as dioxins and furans.

However, forest fire control regulations allow individuals to use burn barrels under terms of a permit that sets restrictions, including location and time of day to burn. But only dry, non-recyclable paper or cardboard and untreated or non-painted wood products can be burned in a barrel. Small businesses, commercial enterprises and industries are not allowed to use burn barrels (or other forms of open burning) to dispose of waste generated by the businesses.

Burning alternatives

There are many alternatives to open burning to consider, such as more environmentally friendly options like composting and recycling. Because burning presents health concerns for you and any neighbors exposed to the smoke from your debris burning, please review additional information on the health and environmental effects related to debris burning.

The DNR’s Air Management, Waste & Materials Management and Forestry programs each have developed regulations that apply to various situations of open burning. Please consult these rules for more specifics about requirements in your situation.

Last revised: Wednesday August 29 2012