Burn barrel

Q: Are burn barrels legal in Mankato? I know fire pits are, but burning garbage?

A: This looked like an easy one. Just call up the Mankato City Code on the city website, search for “burn barrel,” verify that they are illegal and be done.

But “burn barrel” doesn’t appear in any city ordinances, so Ask Us Guy figured the prohibition was written in legalese and tried some other words, starting with “incinerate.”

Turns out garbage incineration is allowed in industrial zones as long as a conditional-use permit is obtained. That doesn’t address, however, whether it can be burned in barrels in residential areas.

OK, how about a search for “fire.” Lots of results there, including that it’s unlawful to “kindle, build, maintain or use a fire” on a bike trail. Also, don’t for a minute think that you can “fire or discharge within the limits of the City any cannon.” And the old firecracker-flushed-down-the-toilet thing? Nope. It’s a violation of Mankato ordinances “to cause fire or explosion or be injurious in any other way to the wastewater treatment system.”

So, Ask Us Guy was no closer to an answer. After throwing a tarp over his backyard cannon, he called Community Development Director Paul Vogel, who pointed out a couple of things. First, although the City Code might not specifically say you can’t burn your garbage, Section 3.61 says “all households within the City shall dispose of collectable refuse by the City collection service.”

Along with various types of garbage, the definition of “refuse” also includes leaves and other “yard debris.”

So, you’re required to put the trash on the curb for the garbage truck to pick up, which would be tough to do if you had already burned it in a barrel. And if that isn’t clear enough, there’s always state law.

Vogel provided a link to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency webpage on the topic, which stated: “For most Minnesotans, it is against the law to burn or bury household wastes — it’s been illegal since the 1980s. Farmers in some areas are still allowed to burn some household wastes, due to the limited availability of collection or drop-off services for waste and recyclables. Even where it’s still allowed by law, backyard burning of household garbage is an unsafe and unhealthy practice.”

As the reader suggests, recreational fires are allowed in residential areas. So could somebody start a fire in a burn barrel and call it a recreational fire?

“I guess they could,” said Sean Hayes, a fire commander with the Mankato Department of Public Safety. “I don’t know if there’d be much recreational value.”

And if there was garbage in the barrel, it would be a no-no regardless of whether a person was roasting a marshmallow over it. The key to recreational fires isn’t the container as much as the stuff being burned.

“You can only burn clean, dry, natural wood — logs,” Hayes said.

No garbage allowed. Not even treated lumber. Or leaves.

Also, a recreational fire needs to be attended to at all times, and some type of extinguishment method must be at hand — a garden hose, a bucket of sand or a large bucket of water.

In addition, recreational fires must be kept away from combustible materials such as your home, a fence, a deck or the neighbor’s house. For an open fire ring, the required distance is 25 feet. That shrinks to 15 feet for enclosed manufactured fireplaces built to keep sparks from flying out.

And don’t even think about trying to match the homecoming bonfire from your high school or college days. The natural wood being burned can’t be more than 2 feet high or 3 feet across.

That size prohibition means that people can’t, for instance, burn down a log home and claim it’s a recreational fire, according to Hayes: “It’s just interesting how sometimes people take it too far.”

When that happens, Hayes said it’s OK to call 911. Most people are reasonable about their recreational fires and respectful of neighbors. But in 17 years on the job, he’s responded to a few cases where they aren’t.

“It happens when people push the envelope,” he said. “... People are not afraid to call when it’s too much or too close.”

Finally, leaf-burning is not allowed. Recreational fires can burn only clean dry natural wood. Leaves aren’t wood. So burning leaves cannot be called a recreational fire.

Although some older people get nostalgic, thinking of the pre-1980s days when the scent of burning leaves was the aroma of autumn, leaf-burning inevitably delivers clouds of smoke into neighboring properties and can send embers flying on a breezy day.

“As much as it smells nice to some, it’s very obnoxious to others,” Hayes said.

Q: Any questions?

A: Ask Us Guy — diligent and hard-working as he is (and with some assistance from people who actually know things) — has whittled his list of unanswered questions down to just a couple. If there’s something you’re curious about, particularly regarding issues focused on south-central Minnesota, send them in.

Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, 418 S. Second St., Mankato, MN 56001. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com; put Ask Us in the subject line.

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