As temperatures dip, Torontonians bump up against outdoor fire pit rules

Setting up a bonfire in a park or your backyard isn’t allowed, but there are legal options to stay warm outdoors this winter.

Open air burning isn’t allowed in Ontario, but there are legal options

Thinking of staying warm near a fire pit this winter while spending time outdoors? Not so fast, says the Toronto fire department. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

As fall temperatures set in, some Torontonians are turning to fire pits — both in parks and in their own backyards — in order to stay warm while socializing safely outdoors. 

But there's a big problem, says Toronto Fire Deputy Chief Larry Cocco. 

"The Ontario Fire Code prohibits open air burning," Cocco said, adding that breaking the rules can come with some hefty fines. 

Torontonians who want to gather around a heat source this winter do have some legal options, he says. 

Here's your guide to the rules. 

City fire pits

There are built-in fire pits at a number of city parks and beaches, but technically, Torontonians aren't allowed to use any of them — and haven't been for months. 

Normally the city issues permits for using the pits, but that system was suspended this year due to the pandemic. The city's fire pit season also ends on Sept. 30, so the season is now over anyway. 

But that hasn't stopped people from using them this fall. 

The number of complaints made to 311 about the use of park fire pits went up to 19 last month, compared to three in September 2019. 

The city also handed out ten $300 tickets last month for fire building without permits — most of which are attributed to beach fires both on Toronto's lakeshore and on Centre Island. 

In a statement, city spokesperson Jasmine Patrick stressed the importance of following public health rules of not gathering with people outside of your own household or leaving your home for non-essential activities. 

"The city is working closely with Toronto Public Health on plans for fall and winter outdoor recreation activities for residents," Patrick wrote. 

Backyard options

For people with backyards, there are other choices for outdoor fires — but Cocco warns that many of them go against the rules as well.

"We do not issue open air burn permits for backyard bonfires. We never have, and our position is, it's a violation of the Ontario Fire Code," he said, adding that just because a Toronto hardware store sells fire pits doesn't mean you can use them. 

There is an exception for a controlled wood fire used for cooking, but Cocco says it needs to be an appropriate size for the food you have and be put out once the cooking is done. 

A backyard wood fire in the Bloorcourt area of Toronto. Wood burning fires are meant to be used only for cooking purposes in the city. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

With wood fires off the table, Cocco says there is a legal option: fire pits fuelled by propane or natural gas that are certified by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA.) 

"It produces quite a bit of heat," said Cocco. "The benefit of it is it's not in contravention of the fire code." 

Cocco also notes that that propane exception does not include ethanol-fuelled table top fires, which Health Canada issued a warning about last year after several people were injured

Finally — there are also patio heaters, which the TSSA is reminding people should only be used outdoors and with appropriate safety precautions. 

Should park fire pits be open for business?   

Koreatown resident Lucy Cameron has used city fire pits legally in years past, and, after making inquiries with the city, was disappointed to discover there would be no option to do so this year.

She has no plans to break the rules, but said others might not be so careful. 

"If they can't be together outside they will be together in their houses," said Cameron. "It's just taking away a responsible option for people."

Barry Ross, who is part of two volunteer groups associated with Fairmount Park, near Gerrard Street East and Coxwell Avenue, also questions the city's system. 

"People are frustrated they want to have these events, because they're cozy and comfortable," he said. "They're good for the mind and a little bit of family gathering."

As long as people are in small groups and keeping socially distant, Ross questions the need for the city's "cumbersome" permitting process altogether, arguing communities are capable of self-managing park pits. 

"No one as a good citizen wants to say that 'I ignore the rules,'" he said. "It's just ... what is this rule here for?" 



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