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A flareup in complaints over backyard recreational fires has prompted Minneapolis to consider requiring permits, neighbor permission or other restrictions on the popular practice.
The City Council committee that took up the topic Wednesday didn't have to look far to find an aggrieved party. Council Member Meg Tuthill was primed.
Tuthill lives in a 112-year-old house in the Wedge neighborhood, where three-decker houses are packed tightly and made of wood. She's had neighbors build bonfires too close to houses and so tall they singe the trees. She's also tired of having 911 "blow me off and be condescending" when she calls to complain.
"I'm really paranoid about fire in our houses," she said in an interview.
Minneapolis is the latest city in the metro to consider new curbs on backyard fires. To many, the fire pit is the bright and cozy centerpiece of an outdoor gathering. To others, the fires are a smoky irritant and a health menace.
Like many metro cities, Minneapolis has added onto state regulations when it comes to putting limits on backyard fires. The city says they can't be more than three feet across or two feet high, must be ringed by a six-inch-tall barrier and be attended by someone at least age 18. Burning is allowed only between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. and when the wind is not more than 10 miles per hour. A hose or other means of extinguishing the fire must be kept nearby.
But some folks haven't gotten the message. The number of unauthorized fires reported to Minneapolis firefighters jumped 42.5 percent from 2007 to 2009, and has held at 300 or so since then. Fire Department policy requires dousing an illegal fire if the property owner doesn't, but there's no citation.
Several ideas for curbing illegal fires emerged Wednesday. One would follow the lead of cities like Maple Grove, which require residents to obtain a free permit, mainly so they understand the rules. The permit can be revoked for noncompliance.
Another option in Minneapolis would require residents who want a fire permit to get the permission of nearby property owners, the same requirement for those who want to keep bees or chickens in their yards.
The council panel sent those and other ideas off to two citizen advisory committees dealing with public health and the environment. If a proposal emerges to stiffen the city ordinance, a public hearing will be scheduled.
Tuthill said such a hearing could draw a crowd comparable to a legendary proposal in 1986 to require cat leashing that helped spark four hours of public testimony pro and con.
Wednesday's session on fires was prompted by an earlier panel discussion of bringing down asthma rates in the city, one of a series of environmental measures tracked by the city. The city's environmental staff reported that outdoor fires contribute to carbon dioxide, harmful ozone, air particles and the release of toxic substances. "We know that a recreational fire releases pollution," although how much remains unclear, said Dan Huff, a city environmental supervisor.
One measurement in the Phillips neighborhood found 7 percent of the fine particle pollution came from fireplaces and outdoor fires, a share that was dwarfed by the emissions from fossil fuel from vehicles or home furnaces.
For some people, having wood smoke drifting in their windows is an annoyance; for people like Pete Wagner of the Seward neighborhood, it's about his health. He said he, a cartoonist, and his wife, an artist, have each developed health problems from exposure to the chemicals in art supplies, and smoke aggravates them.
He said his neighbors on three sides seem to light up the outdoor fires whenever the wind is blowing toward his house. "It was like a cosmic joke or something to make our life totally miserable," Wagner said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438