SALEM — Fire pits that burn wood and charcoal are already illegal in Salem, but the fire department wants to get that message out in a bigger way — and quickly.
Fire Chief Gerry Giunta has asked the City Council to approve an ordinance that not only affirms the ban on "solid fuel" fire pits, but requires stores that sell them to post signs warning customers that they're not allowed in Salem.
Councilors voted unanimously to give the order the first of two necessary approvals — a shortcut to eventual approval — after which it was sent to committee for further review. It's likely to be ratified in full by the end of the month, according to City Clerk Ilene Simons.
The pressure to act quickly is spurred by the increasing popularity of fire pits fueled by propane or natural gas at local restaurants. Even though such fire pits and outdoor heaters are legal, the chief fears they will inspire homeowners to go out and buy fire pits for their backyards, not realizing that wood- and coal-fired ones are prohibited.
Several downtown restaurants have used outdoor heating equipment for years, including Rockafellas in Townhouse Square and The Village Tavern on the pedestrian mall. But now The Derby, the restaurant that replaced Tavern in the Square at the corner of Washington and New Derby streets, has plans to install a gas-fired outdoor heater.
"Once they're in that very busy intersection, everyone in the city will be seeing it there and will be curious why they can't have a fire pit in their yard," Giunta said. "Basically, they can if the fuel is a gaseous fuel — not gasoline, but propane or natural gas."
And if residents visit a store like Home Depot, they'll see charcoal- and wood-burning fire pits for sale. These cannot be used in Salem because of the safety hazard.
"We're worried about flying embers, which would cause a fire," Giunta said. "We don't want a repeat of the Great Salem Fire from 100 years ago."
Of course, one doesn't have to go back a century to look for blazes that jump from building to building. A nine-alarm fire in Dorchester over the weekend spread to eight homes, injuring nine people and displacing 14, according to several media reports.
Fines are $50 for the first offense and $50 for each subsequent day the violation persists. Giunta said, however, that fines aren't likely to be issued.
"In the past, we haven't been handing out fines," Giunta said. "We're trying to educate people to not burn solid fuels because of the danger they can pose in a neighborhood. If you look at Derby Street and how close the homes are, all it takes is fire and wind."
Beverly, Peabody rules
So far, neighboring cities have taken a different approach. Beverly and Peabody both permit wood-burning fire pits, but with some restrictions and some exceptions.
In Beverly, fire pits must be at least 25 feet away from "any combustible structure, including swing sets, fences, trees," said Beverly fire Capt. Chris Halloran.
"There are sections of Beverly, too, where they aren't allowed," he said. "In downtown Beverly, you don't have 25-foot clearance from any structure."
Halloran said they also shut down the use of fire pits on a case-by-case basis.
"Once a neighbor complains, it has to be shut down," he said, adding that neighbors have a right to open their windows without dealing with smoke. "When you're talking about propane or natural-gas grills, which we do allow in the city, it's so clean — no smoke."
Peabody also has no ban on fire pits, though, just as in Beverly, firefighters will extinguish nuisance pits.
"What we use is Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 5, and it allows the fire department to order a condition likely to cause fire to be remedied," said Peabody fire Lt. Chris Dowling. "That would be applicable to that type of device."
But Dowling said he endorses Salem's effort to get ahead of any rush to install residential fire pits.
"We don't want to promote these things, and no one (restaurant) has applied for this type of thing in downtown Peabody, so I'm thankful for that," Dowling said. "If this is allowed, maybe we'll have a problem — because it wouldn't just be a Salem problem. It'd be a fire problem."