Spring is the time for us to emerge from our winter hibernation and start cleaning our yards to get rid of all the debris, leaves, limbs, and pine straw that has collected since last fall. The usual method to do this is to pile it in the yard, light a match and watch it burn. While this debris burning is easy, quick, and smells good, it is also very hazardous for our houses. All it takes is one spark from the burn pile to fly up and land on the roof and you can be the object of a 911 call which brings red rucks with flashing lights and water hoses. A flying, burning ember from your burning pile can travel up to a mile with the right wind and land where it is not detected and cause a fire that you or your neighbor may not be aware of until it’s too late.

Debris burning is Georgia’s #1 cause of wildfire, and it accounts for over 50 percent of all wildfires in the state and burning yard leaf piles is the most common cause of these wildfires. All debris burning requires a burn permit from the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) with the exception of agricultural fields or pastures, which require GFC notification. The burning of household garbage is prohibited and not permitted by the GFC. A major cause of debris burn wildfires is not obtaining a permit and burning with improper weather conditions. Permits are obtained by calling your local GFC county office or dialing 1-877-OK2-BURN. It’s free and only takes minutes.

Fires should not be initiated before 8:00 a.m. and should be completely extinguished before dark. Burning permits are for Hand Piled Natural Vegetation and existing small garden spots only, including leaf piles on the premises where they fell, existing small clearings to plant vegetables and flower gardens, vegetative debris disposal from storm damage, weed abatement, and disease and or pest prevention. This permit does not include the burning of debris generated by machine clearing of an area for establishing a garden spot or other clearings. If your unpermitted fire gets out and damages your neighbor’s house, you can be held liable, or if it burns your house, your insurance company may not pay, but if you have a permit, you are off the hook. You can also be held responsible for suppression costs if you cause a wildfire and do not have a permit…. bulldozers, hot shot crews, and air tankers do not come cheap! So, think before you burn and get a permit, even for a small leaf pile in your yard. It’s the cheapest insurance policy you can get.

Here are Smokey’s Safe Debris burning tips:

1. Comply with Local Regulations – Contact GFC in advance to confirm that burning is allowed and to find out if permits are being issued that day.

  • The call must be made on the day you plan to burn and is only good for that day.
  • You must call each day you plan to burn.

2. Choose a Safe Burning Site – A safe site will be far away from power lines, overhanging limbs, buildings, automobiles, and equipment.

  • It will have vertical clearance at least three times the height of the pile, as heat from the fire extends far past the actual flames that you see.
  • It will have horizontal clearance twice the height of the debris pile.

3. Check the Weather Forecast – Weather fluctuations, such as sudden gusts of wind, could make debris burning spark a wildfire.

  • Contact the GFC on the day you plan to burn to find out if the weather is safe enough to burn, and if it is not they will not issue a permit.

4. Prepare the Site Correctly – The ground around the burn site should be surrounded by gravel or dirt for at least ten feet in all directions.

  • Keep the surrounding area watered down during the burn.

5. Remain With your Fire – Most Important! Stay with your fire until it is completely out.

  • To ensure the fire has been completely extinguished, drown the fire with water, turn over the ashes with a shovel and drown it again.
  • Repeat several times.
  • Check the burn area regularly over the next several days and up to several weeks following the burn, especially if the weather is warm, dry, and windy.

I once burned a large debris pile (with notification), and covered it with dirt to put it out at the end of the day, we had several rains, and 6 weeks later when I uncovered the mound, it still had fire inside so you must monitor it until you are completely sure that the fire is out.

6. Keep it Legal – It is illegal to burn plastic, tires, and most other waste products not from a tree or shrub.

  • It is illegal to burn any kind of building materials including lumber and the debris can only be natural material.


For more information on debris burning, burn permits, and wildfires, contact your local Georgia Forestry Commission office at (706) 781-2398, the US Forest Service district office at (706) 781-2593, your local fire department or Frank Riley, Executive Director, Chestatee/Chattahoochee RC&D council at (706) 894-1591 or email info.ccrcd@gmail.com.