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What You Need to Know Before Burning Fall Leaves at Home

Sep 22, 2022 02:04PM ● By Editor

Editor's Note:  Burning permits are issued by the Minnesota DNR and are required in every county in Minnesota.  Currently in Cook County, burning can only be done after 6PM and must be fully extinguished by 8AM.   You may obtain a permit in three ways:
  1. Purchase a burning permit online. (A burn permit costs $5 per year and is valid through December 31 in the year it is purchased). You can apply for a burning permit by following the link to the MN DNR website.
  2. Any DNR Forestry Office.
  3. Any active fire warden.
According to the MN DNR website, a burning permit is not needed:
  • for a "campfire"—a fire set for cooking, warming, or ceremonial purposes, which is not more than 3 feet in diameter by 3 feet high, and has had the ground 5 feet from the base of the fire cleared of all combustible material
  • when the ground is snow-covered — by definition, when there is a continuous unbroken cover of snow 3 inches deep or more surrounding the immediate area of the fire, sufficient to keep the fire from spreading
  • for a fire contained in a charcoal grill, camp stove, or other device designed for cooking or heating
  • for a fire in an approved burner  PDF, and there is no combustible material within 5 feet of the base of the burner, and it is in use between the 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.

By Manasa Reddigari and Bob Vila from - September 20, 2022

Rake, rake, repeat! That activity seems to sum up many homeowners’ autumn weekends, and just when you think you’re off leaf duty for the day, a passing breeze can scatter your piles and shake your trees enough to unleash a whole new carpet of fallen foliage.

No wonder the thought of burning leaves is so tempting! Before you set fall foliage en fuego, it’s important to understand the risks, rules, and rewards of the practice—so read on prior to firing up.

Burning Leaves: Why it’s Often Not Worth the Risk

Leaf burning might seem like the most expedient way to clean up the fall lawn, but your local government might feel differently. What’s more, not all people know how to burn leaves, and accidents can happen. The National Park Service says that nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the U.S. start because of humans, and burning of debris like fallen leaves and trash ranks among the top human errors that cause wildfires.

Is it worth all the risk to your property—not to mention the ozone layer—or could you opt for an alternative method?

It might be banned where you live.

Check the fire code for your municipality for any restrictions relevant to starting outdoor fires. Local governments usually distinguish between “closed burning,” which is confined to a structure such as a stove or a chimney, and “open burning,” such as burning leaves in an exposed heap on the ground, wherein the fire byproducts are released directly into the atmosphere.

Many cities permit closed burning but ban open burning because open burning adds to air pollution and can potentially turn into an uncontainable fire. Areas that allow open leaf burning might require you to obtain a permit that only allows fires of a limited size, during certain months, and at a designated location and distance away from dwellings.

Some local laws regarding backyard burning change based on season or take effect only when conditions are ripe for high pollution, wildfire risk, or public health issues. Before burning fallen leaves or any debris, even on a seemingly calm day, individuals should check to see whether those rules to limit smoke or fire are in effect at the time.

It can be a hazard to the environment and to your health.

Although the federal government has no regulations affecting open burning, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) engages states and communities in studying the effects of open burning on the environment. Past studies by the agency have measured emission factors for burning leaves such as particulates, carbon monoxide, and other harmful chemicals and gases that release into the atmosphere.

Particulates are microscopic solids or tiny liquid droplets people inhale. The tiniest particles, naked to the human eye, pose the most breathing risk.

Eco- and health-conscious homeowners, take heed: Burning leaves can unleash particulates, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and plenty more problems into the air. Many add to ground-level ozone (smog) that can damage sensitive ecosystems and negatively impact crops and wildlife within them.

The smoke released by leaf burning can also irritate your eyes, nose, and throat, and the carbon monoxide kicked up by burning leaves and remaining embers can, if you receive enough exposure, reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood and lungs. This leads to coughing, wheezing, and other respiratory conditions that can sometimes persist.

Alternatives to Burning Leaves

Eliminate the harmful byproducts of combustion altogether by removing fallen leaves manually. You might even be able to turn yard waste into a yard helper by mulching or composting leaves instead. Mulching and composting can return important organic matter to the soil, improving lawn and plant health.

With lots of leaves, you have options to divide and conquer without burning. For example, pick up and bag some of the leaves, add some to the compost pile, and mulch the thin layer that remains.

Either leave the mulched leaves in place or move some to serve as mulch in garden beds for the winter.

To get rid of leaves altogether, place them into biodegradable bags and turn them over to your city as part of a leaf pick-up program, add leaves to an outdoor compost bin, or mulch the leaves for use as lawn fertilizer.

Burning Leaves Alternative Mulching Leaves
Mulching Leaves

Mulching might sound like a lot of work, but it can be as simple as running over thin layers of dropped leaves with a lawn mower. Once the leaves break down to pieces the size of a dime, leaving a thin layer in place serves as beneficial mulch for the lawn and many insects.

Just don’t leave a thick layer, especially of whole leaves. Matted leaves prevent air and sunlight from getting through. If you have lots of leaves, invest in a mulcher; these come as handheld tools, standalone mulchers, and special mower attachments.

Compost Leaves

Composting leaves can take a little more time, especially to see the benefits of your work. If you already have a compost pile, add leaves as part of your balanced composting. Again, breaking leaves down into smaller pieces before adding them speeds up the composting process.

Start a pile of composting leaves in a bin or corner of your yard that gets plenty of sun and drainage. Add some nitrogen-rich matter like grass clippings or food waste to the top and build the pile up to about 3 feet high and 4 feet wide.

Turn the compost monthly to mix the ingredients, and wet it periodically during dry periods. Compost needs a little moisture to decompose. It’s ready to use when it appears dark, like soil, and crumbles.

Chipping Leaves

Some wood chippers include shredding chutes that chop up leaves and other softer yard waste. It works like a leaf mulcher, but as a 2-in-1 tool when paired with a wood chipper. It is not recommended to use a standard wood chipper chute chipping leaves, though. Be sure the chipper has a designated shredding chute.

Burning Leaves Pick Up Leaves
Pick Up Leaves

If you mulch and compost some leaves, tackle the remaining leaf cleanup fairly easily with a rake and bags. Gather leaves soon after they fall, when they are less crumbly and have more nitrogen to give.

Choose a rake with an ergonomic handle to ease strain and a large tine spread for more efficient sweeps with the rake. A leaf blower can make quicker work of gathering leaves, but gas-powered blowers are not as sustainable as a good old garden rake and a little sweat.

If you’re happy with your city’s pickup and disposal system, bag the leaves and place them on the curb. Some cities offer special leaf or yard waste pickup days monthly or in fall. Check for those dates and to see if your town recycles yard waste into usable mulch for residents.

The easiest way to collect leaves is to rake them onto a tarp and then lift the edges up to “pour” the leaves into the bag. Find biodegradable plastic bags, sturdy paper bags designed for leaf collection, or reusable garden bags, if the local solid waste department allows for their use.

To see the original article and related stories, follow this link to the website.

To learn about fire safety in Cook County, follow this link to the Cook County Firewise website.

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