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Michigan's fall open burning tradition: Keep it safe, legal

Brush BurningBurning brush and leaves in the fall is a time-honored Michigan tradition for many, but there are rules that help protect our forests and our health.

Outdoor burning can lead to an increased risk of forest fires, as well as being a nuisance -- or health hazard -- to neighbors.

Chip, compost, curb, create: Options
abound for leaves and sticks

Chip It
A chipper or shredder converts your branches and yard waste into
useful mulch or the perfect compost pile. Pro tip: Many hardware
and do-it-yourself businesses rent out chippers.

Compost It
You can convert dead leaves and grass clippings into healthy food
for your plants and yard rather than polluting the air. Composting
is a convenient and affordable way to manage yard waste.

Curb It
Does your community have its own composting operation? Find out!
For a small fee, you may be able to leave your yard waste on the
curb. This is often used in composting to create good quality soil.

Create Habitat Piles
If you have space on your property, and you like animals, consider
stacking brush neatly to create potential habitats for animals.
Bunnies and other critters will love you.

Scott Wilbur is the fire chief in Bronson, a rural south-central Michigan community where open burning complaints increase in the fall when property owners are cleaning up leaves and debris. Each call requires a full response from the department, at about $600 per run.

He encourages residents to explore options to burning leaves and brush, and to call the department for a permit if they are going to burn legal materials.

"Community members can help reduce (calls on open fires) by only burning legal materials, burning during the day and when winds are calm, keeping their fire small and manageable, and calling their local fire department for a burning permit prior to starting a fire," Wilbur said. He praised the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) resources on open burning that help explain the law, and provide tips on best practices.

So what are the rules?

Burning brush and leaves is prohibited in any community over 7,500 residents and/or within 1,400 feet of an incorporated city or village limit. Before burning brush and leaves, residents should check with their local municipality to see if burning is allowed and to obtain a burn permit.

What measures can people take to ensure legal burning is done safely and with respect for neighbors who may experience respiratory problems from smoke and ash? After all, smoke from burning leaves and brush can include hazardous byproducts including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, benzene, acetone, toluene, ethyl benzene, pinene, naphthalene, phenol, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Neighbors, particularly those with compromised immune systems, may be especially susceptible to distress from those toxics.

Here are some tips on how to open burn responsibly:

  • Never leave a fire unattended.
  • Always keep a shovel, metal bucket and water source nearby.
  • Make sure to obtain?permission to burn (burn permit).
  • Keep fire small and manageable – no larger than 3 feet high and 3 feet wide.
  • Do not burn on windy days or during periods of dry weather.
  • Consider composting or recycling yard waste instead of burning. 
  • Fires should be at least 10 feet away from logs, stumps or debris. Remember to make sure no branches are hanging overhead.  

Other resources for fire safety can be found at

<>What about garbage? 

What rules are in place to protect the public from toxic emissions related to burning household garbage? In short, the burning of any materials containing plastic, rubber, foam, chemically treated wood, textiles, electronics, chemicals or other hazardous materials can be harmful to health and is prohibited. Even allowable materials, like paper, can only be burned from one- or two-family dwellings. Commercial and industrial facilities may not burn trash without an air permit for an appropriately designed and operated incinerator.

Links to specific rules and regulations, as well as links to health studies related to burning, are available at

Check back tomorrow to learn about one alternative to open burning.

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