Having a Campfire in your Backyard

Kath Heiman — 15 August 2019
The revolution of fire pits is increasingly bringing that cosy camping atmosphere into the backyard. But is it legal?

How many of us have joined the growing movement in favour of backyard fire pits?  I’m not entirely sure when they became a mainstream ideal for Aussie backyards, but with the range of fire pits available nowadays – from artisan crafted to mass produced – these courtyard accessories are now within reach of anyone who finds themselves yearning for the comfort and comradery that can be generated so easily around an open fire.

We recently acquired a cast iron fire pit from a home and hardware retailer (a place where I make so many purchases that I reckon we should own shares). And we’re loving it. We’ve made a hearth for the pit from some early 1930s red bricks fired at the Yarralumla Brickworks, which was one of the earliest construction projects in the fledgling city of Canberra. The added significance of these bricks is that they’re leftovers from a sauna project that my dad and I completed 30 years ago at the rural property where I grew up. So, in the evenings, we’ve been channelling a relaxed fireside atmosphere at home that feels a lot like the evenings that we enjoy when we hit the road. Around our backyard fire pit, mobile phones are forbidden, marshmallows are roasted, conversation is enjoyed and stars are observed. And our daughter is planning a backyard swag-sleepover with her little friends. Nice.

But, like most things, it seems that Big Brother is waiting in the side-lines ready to step in if I look like I’m enjoying myself too much. A year or so ago, while we were on the road, I remember hearing an ABC Radio Adelaide piece telling me that local city dwellers may only be permitted to burn timber in their yards if they’re actually cooking food. 

Picture credits: LouisHiemstra/Getty Images & Kath Heiman

Closer to home, it seems we’re still okay to enjoy a toasty evening around a fire-pit, provided that our purposes remain “generally acceptable to the broad community” – whatever that means. 

Controls like these speak to concerns around air quality. It’s clearly a vexed issue – particularly for people living in small suburban sub-divisions. Fine particles in wood smoke are known to be irritants, particularly for those with pre-existing health issues. So smoke stagnating in valleys in built-up areas is bound to draw adverse commentary from city residents and environmental protection agencies alike. 

Then there’s the issue of fire safety. While Australian statistics are hard to come by, the US National Fire Protection Association tells us that the number of injuries around American backyard fire pits and fireplaces tripled in six years from 2006 to 2012. And kids seem to be dominating the line-up of hospital admissions following accident or misadventure. 

While I’m receptive to these concerns, it seems a pity that bureaucracy has to extend its bony fingers into the fire pit on my own home patch. As usually happens, the carelessness and selfishness of the minority risks wrecking things for the rest of us. 

When it comes to fire safety, our daughter has a high level of respect for fire, having grown up around bush camps. And in fact, our fire pit is helping to reinforce the self-discipline around open flames that’s so important when we travel in remote areas. 

As for the application of common courtesy in a suburban setting, I’ve got no intent of annoying the neighbours with 3am garden parties around a booming bonfire letting off plumes of acrid smoke.  

I’m just happy that we’re able to recreate a cosy atmosphere akin to the one we enjoy on the road when we’re settled down by a campfire under a million stars in the Land of the Southern Cross. 


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