Tips For Preventing Brush Fires

With the hopes of spring around the corner, we have once again entered the brush and grass fire season.  There are high-risk wildfire areas in Wisconsin.  Increased residential developments in the fire prone areas of Wisconsin have put thousands of families and homes at risk.  The following are some tips and prevention information to stop potential brush fires before they start.


Debris Burning and Burn Barrels

Debris burning is the number one cause of fires in Wisconsin. Outdoor burning in Wisconsin is regulated!  In most areas of the state a written permit is needed from the DNR, local fire warden, village or township official prior to any outdoor burning. If there is doubt ask your local DNR fire control or village or town officials what the burning regulations are. In most debris burning caused fires, the responsible party was burning outside the restrictions on the burning permit. Burning permits are typically written for evening hours when there is less likelihood of your debris fire escaping control.

Before burning, consider other more environmentally friendly options like composting and recycling. Burning also has health concerns for both you and your neighbors who have to live with the smoke from your debris burning.

It is illegal to burn: Asphalt, garbage, metal, petroleum products, plastics, rubber, or treated wood. These materials release toxic pollutants into the air and are recognized as a significant health risk and public nuisance.

However, if burning is your only option, follow these guidelines to ensure your debris fire does not escape and become a threatening brush fire.

Debris pile guidelines:

  1. Get a permit, if required, and follow the restrictions on the permit.
  2. You must be present while your pile is burning, if not, you are in violation of your permit.
  3. Do not place your debris pile under conifer trees or within 25 feet of any structure.
  4. Have fire-fighting tools on site (garden hose, shovel or rake).
  5. Do not burn if it is windy.
  6. Clear an area down to mineral soil around your debris pile to create a "fire break".
  7. Once the objective of your burn is completed, be sure to "mop-up" the ashes with water and stirring. Often wildfires are started from "holdover" debris piles that were not properly extinguished, even several days after they were burned. 

Burning barrel guidelines:

Permits are also required for burning barrels. Typically, burning barrel permits are good for after 7pm for the remainder of the calendar year with the exceptions of Sundays and holidays. CAUTION: Only DRY paper and wood products can be burned in a barrel.

Follow the same general guidelines for burning barrels as shown for debris piles above. The two most common problems with burn barrels causing wildfires is the lack of a lid and a barrel that is in such poor condition that burning materials fall out of the sides.

Below is an illustration on how to safely set up a burning barrel


Setting up a burn barrel safely:

Improper Ash Disposal

A fireplace or wood stove with a dancing fire lends a cozy feeling to any home, especially on a cool, blustery day. Fireplaces, wood stoves, bar-b-ques and other wood-burning equipment can provide efficient heat, cooking mediums and aesthetics. Unfortunately, all too often improper disposal of ashes from these devices is the cause of wild fires, as well as fires in dumpsters and trash cans. Piles of ashes can hold enough heat to start a fire for several days and even longer after any flames are seen if not properly extinguished.

Before disposing of ashes, follow these steps:

  1. Place them in a metal container, or on bare earth, never in paper or plastic bags or cardboard boxes. (We know this sounds obvious, but it happens all the time.)
  2. Wet the ashes and stir as you add more water to make sure they are dead cold!
  3. Do not throw cigarettes out of the car windows.  A carelessly discarded cigarette or match can land in dry organic material resulting in a fire.
  4. Make certain all smoking materials are cold before disposing.  Leave ashtrays out overnight before emptying into a metal container.


Under normal circumstances no permits are required for warming or cooking fires (campfires) in Wisconsin. However, when very high or extreme fire conditions are reached, the state can enact temporary fire restrictions that will either limit or prohibit the use of campfires. Under any circumstances, YOU are responsible for maintaining a safe campfire and can be held liable for the suppression cost should you cause a wildfire.

If a fire is desired and conditions are favorable, use an existing fire ring. If there is not one available, ensure with the property owner that construction of campfires is allowed, then follow the guidelines below for setting up and extinguishing your campfire.

  1. Be careful where you build your campfire: Select an open level spot away from trees, overhanging branches and dense dry grass.
  2. Be sure your fire can't spread: clear a ten-foot fire circle to bare soil around where your campfire is going to be. (scrape with your shovel)
  3. Dig a shallow hole in the center of your fire circle then circle the pit with rocks to shelter the campfire from the wind and help keep burning materials inside the pit.
  4. Never leave your campfire unattended and always have a shovel and bucket of water on site.
  5. When finished, drown your campfire thoroughly with water and stir the ashes.
  6. Scrape all embers off of the partially burned sticks and logs.
  7. Check the entire area outside the campfire circle for any hot embers. Remember that it only takes one spark or ember to start a forest fire!
  8. Add more water to your fire and stir again.
  9. Follow the property owner's wishes or regulations for returning your campfire site to natural conditions, if applicable.


Various types of equipment and machinery caused fires account for a large portion of fires each year in Wisconsin.

These causes could include hot carbon expelled from exhaust systems, malfunctioning or no spark arresters, sparks from road grading, mowing or disking operations, dragging chains or other material, to electrical or mechanical breakdowns of various vehicles or equipment in or near a setting.

Here are a few tips to help prevent equipment caused fires:

1.      Ensure that all equipment that operates outside is equipped with a functioning spark arrester.

2.      Ensure that any hauled material is loaded securely and will not rub on tires, moving parts or the ground.

3.      Perform preventative maintenance checks routinely on all machinery and equipment to ensure that they are functioning properly.

4.      Notify the electric power company when dead trees or overhanging limbs endanger the electric wires.  The wires may touch each other or the ground causing sparks that start fires.

5.      Park vehicles so that the exhaust system does not come in contact with dry grass, weeds or leaves.

6.      All vehicles should be equipped with a fire extinguisher.

7.      Delay any mowing operations in the spring until the grass is in full green up.

8.      Never fuel a lawn mower while it is hot.  Give it a few minutes to cool off. 

9.      Gasoline vapors are highly flammable.  These vapors stay on your clothing and can ignite if you light a match or a cigarette.

10. Store gasoline only in approved containers, and away from heat sources such as pilot lights, or gas grills.

Electric Fencers Fire Safety

Electric fencers are another common cause of fires where they are used. There are currently two types of electric fence controllers on the market: "continuous current" and those that send a pulse of current through the fence wire. Electric fencers that are continuous current (often marketed as "weed burners") DO NOT have the Underwriters Laboratories Inc. approval and can cause wildfires as the amount and duration of electrical charge going through the wire can heat up vegetation in contact with the wire to the ignition point. When this occurs the vegetation can spontaneously combust and cause a wildfire.

The UL seal of approval means that the controller limits the duration of the electrical charge thereby allowing any vegetation in contact with the wire to cool before the next charge goes through the line.

Follow these guidelines to help prevent fires caused electric fencers:


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