While lighting a burn pile will reduce all those leaves, pruning clippings and other yard waste to a little heap of ashes in just a few hours, taking the proper safety precautions is imperative for protecting yourself and your property. With the right preparation, careful location and proper dousing, you can burn effectively without letting the fire get away.

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When to Burn

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Limit burning yard waste to windless days, or as near windless as possible. If the wind is blowing more than 10 miles per hour, hold off. Check with the fire department responsible for your area before you burn. Laws, permit requirements, burn bans and other regulations vary at the state and even city level. In some areas, burning is illegal during certain times of year and often, local governments only allow burning during specified daylight hours.

Locating the Burn Pile

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Check with the local fire department, city hall or the county courthouse to get specific location and spacing requirements for your area before you start. In general, locate the fire 150 feet away from your neighbor's house and at least 50 feet away from your house, any fences on the property, garden sheds and the garage. If your property backs up to a grassland or woodland area, light the fire at least 25 feet inside your property line. Be aware that burn barrels are illegal in many areas because they burn at a low heat, releasing high levels of pollutants into the air.

Preparing the Burn

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Keep your yard waste fire no more than 4 feet in circumference and 3 feet high and create a fire break -- a bare dirt area the same height and circumference as the fire -- around the burn area. Add to the fire as it burns down rather than creating one massive pile. Use newspaper and matches only to light the fire. Never use fire starters or gasoline on yard waste fires. Before you light, get a hose ready and keep a shovel and metal rake on hand. A shovel allows you to smother sparks and fire with dirt in an emergency while the rake allows you to quickly return logs or branches that roll off the fire.

Keeping It Clean

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Burn only yard waste from your own property, such as leaves, small branches, grass and other yard clippings. Don't burn poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 9, poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), hardy in USDA zones 4 through 10, and poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), hardy in USDA zones 3b through 8b. Burning these poisonous plants will fill the air with highly toxic smoke. In most areas it is illegal to burn household garbage such as plastic, bleached paper, Styrofoam, batteries and any treated wood and construction garbage, or plastic containers that held pesticides at any time.

Watching and Dousing the Fire

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Fires need your constant attention so plan to burn on a day when you can be there the whole time. Don't leave, even for a minute without getting someone to watch it for you. When you're done burning, douse the fire with water and spread out the coals. Keep dousing and spreading the coals until the entire area feels cold to the touch.