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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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April 2005

Open burning

Hazards, alternatives and safe practices

Catherine Regan and Lindsay Haas

Burning debris is the number one cause of fires in Wisconsin and poses health concerns for you and your neighbors.


Outdoor burning in Wisconsin is regulated and you will need a permit in most areas of the state. In most fires caused by debris burning, the responsible party was not following restrictions listed on the burning permit.

Permits typically restrict burning to evening hours when there is less likelihood that a debris fire will escape control.

Usually illegal

Smoke from burning garbage stinks, can trigger asthma attacks and contains toxic compounds.

Open burning of household solid wastes also is illegal with limited exceptions. For example, it is illegal to burn all plastic materials, kitchen wastes, dirty or wet paper wastes, treated or painted wood, furniture and demolition material – or any other material that creates a nuisance. The exceptions include (if not prohibited by local ordinance) lawn and garden debris, small quantities of clean, untreated, unpainted wood and clean paper waste that is not recyclable.

Outdoor fires for cooking or warming up usually are okay and do not require special approval.


There are many alternatives to open burning for waste disposal.

Reduce: Buy in bulk to reduce overall packaging.

Reuse: Reuse household items and give toys, clothes and furniture that you no longer want or need to someone who can use them.

Recycle: It's the law in Wisconsin to recycle plastic, glass, metal, newspaper and cardboard. Take your recyclables to the recycling center closest to your house if there is no roadside recycling pick-up.

Compost: Composting is a great way to dispose of yard waste and kitchen scraps while getting something in return – nutrient-rich soil for your garden, trees and bushes. Brush piles left in a wooded area also can provide wildlife habitat.

When a burn pile escapes

If after considering environmentally sound alternatives to burning you still decide to burn, check to see if a burning permit is required.

The safest time to burn is when the ground is snow-covered and late in the day when the wind has died down.

Before igniting the fire, clear away overhanging branches and remove surrounding vegetation or flammable material at least 10 feet around your fire. Make sure to have firefighting tools, such as a watering hose and a shovel handy, and never leave your fire unattended.

Be certain your fire is out by dousing it with water and stirring the ashes. The two most common reasons burn barrels cause wildfires are the lack of a lid and a barrel that is in such poor condition that burning materials fall out.

Burning permit required?

Use the Wisconsin map to determine where and when you may burn.

In an intensive area: Permits are required when burning any time the ground is not snow-covered. Contact your local DNR Office or Emergency Fire Warden.

In an extensive area: Permits are required any time the ground is not snow-covered during January through May. Contact your local DNR Office or Emergency Fire Warden.

In a cooperative area or inside the limits of incorporated villages or cities: These areas are primarily protected by local and county officials. Communities can create ordinances and additional permit requirements. Contact your local fire department or local officials to obtain burning regulation information.

Obtain a permit, if required, and check it for date and time restrictions. Avoid burning on windy days.

Never leave your fire unattended. You are responsible for all costs to suppress a wildfire caused by your negligence.

Catherine Regan is a DNR wildfire prevention specialist. Lindsay Haas is a DNR natural resources educator.