Can you guess what the fires in the following places have in common: garbage trucks, trash compactors, dumpsters, trash cans, garages, and houses? Most people are stumped—even those who are at high risk of fire from this common cause.
If you guessed ashes from fireplaces, woodstoves, charcoal grills, mobile fire pits, and/or pellet stoves, you’re right. Even if you knew the answer, these facts and our related safety tips may surprise you.
- A single ash in a pile that seems inert can remain “live” (still able to ignite) for 96 hours after the main fire is out.
- Wood ash is so strongly alkaline (our great-grandparents used it to make homemade lye) that it can damage skin and eyes.
- Coal ash is not a good idea for your garden: it’s lower in phosphorus and potassium than wood ash and can contain traces of toxic heavy metals.
Avoiding Loss & Tragedy
Sadly, reignited embers cause thousands of fires and several fatalities each year; most are preventable. Often, the victims’ efforts to use safe handling practices just didn’t go far enough. Here’s how to keep fire-causing embers in your ashes on your radar and off your property.
Good Tools Equal Good Outcomes
- Fire-resistant gloves (mid-arm or elbow-length suggested). “Fire-resistant” makes sense, but why should you use gloves that cover more than your hands? Because you run a high risk of brushing against hot areas when you reach in the stove or fireplace to remove the ashes. Proper gloves are a small investment to avoid a painful burn.
- Small metal shovel with a long handle. A metal shovel allows you to more safely reach inside your stove, fireplace, grill, etc., to remove ashes. The long handle helps you do so without coming too close to potentially hot surfaces. NEVER use a vacuum cleaner to remove ashes.
- Sturdy, fireproof container with a handle and tight lid. “Sturdy and fireproof” are obviously good ideas, but why a tight lid? If you store the container outdoors (as recommended) drafts or breezes can seep under an ill-fitting or loose lid. The air can easily uncover the top layer of inert ashes to expose potentially live embers; the additional oxygen can cause embers to flare up.
Preferably, your container will have feet or a rim that lifts the actual bottom off the floor. This helps ensure that residual heat will not come into direct contact with a surface it could damage or ignite.
- Water. You’ll use water to wet the ashes in your metal container, which helps reduce the likelihood of live embers. Pour or spray the water slowly to avoid making the ashes fly (you don’t want to breathe them in) or being scalded if the water turns to steam if it hits live ashes. This can be messy, so consider doing this outside.
- A space to place the ashes for 96 hours/four days. Make sure you do not place the bucket in your house, on a deck or a porch, or in a mudroom, garage, or shed. The bucket should be at least 10 feet away from any structure. Do not place the bucket near a woodpile, yard waste, or flammable decorations.
Good Practices Mean Fewer Accidents
Keep these resounding “don’ts!” in mind to reduce the chances of fatalities, painful injuries, and damaged or destroyed property.
- Never place the ashes in a plastic, rubber, or paper container or bag, or any other type of flammable container.
- Never add flammable trash to the bucket.
- Never put the ashes in your trash before they sit for four days to make sure all embers have died.
- Do not transfer the ashes to your trash barrel or dumpster before the four days have passed. Besides potential damage to your own property, sanitation workers have been injured by fires in trash containers, trash compactors, dump trucks, and waste facilities that were caused by hot ashes.
Woodstoves, fireplaces, fire pits, and the like can help you save on your heating bills, provide comfort, and add ambience when you entertain. Make sure you can enjoy yours for years to come.