There’s a sign above the back door of Vicki and Greg Gates’ house in Brookfield that sums up how they like to spend their summer evenings.
“Life’s better around the campfire.”
Only right now, the Gateses aren’t sure whether they should risk lighting up the fire pit in their backyard after Brookfield police informed them it’s illegal.
That came as a surprise to Greg Gates, who has lived in his house on the 3400 block of Sunnyside Avenue for 23 years and has been using the fire pit in the yard regularly for the past 15 years. Within the span of six homes on the same side of the block, there are two more.
“It started out as a great experience, as a way for the families to get to know each other,” said Gates. “Then the neighbors came over and it became a gathering spot. In 15 years, there’s never been one complaint.”
But on April 11, there was one.
Greg and Vicki were enjoying an evening out when Greg received a text message from his 24-year-old son, Daniel, who was sitting around the fire pit in the yard along with a few friends.
A Brookfield police officer approached and told Daniel that he hated to have to spoil his evening, but someone had complained about open burning and he had to extinguish the fire or face a ticket.
“I have no problem with the way police conducted themselves,” said Greg, who is a public works employee for the village of Western Springs. “They were very nice.
“And I don’t want to come across as adversarial; I’d just like [village officials] to look into the issue and maybe suspend enforcement until they figure out what they want to do,” Gates said.
Sbiral said the village enforces the open burning statute “on a complaint basis.”
According to police records since 2010, Brookfield officers have responded to 112 complaints of open burning and issued 33 citations.
“The police don’t trudge through the alleys looking where the fire pits are,” Sbiral said.
And while many people simply burn wood, like an indoor fireplace, others sometimes burn garbage, leaves and other materials in their fire pits. Two of the three citations issued by police for open burning in 2015 involved the burning of “refuse, waste or recyclables.”
Many times, those making the complaints have medical conditions, such as asthma. Those concerns shouldn’t be downplayed said Fire Chief Patrick Lenzi.
“The smoke doesn’t have a lot of room to travel [between properties], so it usually travels into someone else’s area and does cause problems with people who have medical conditions,” Lenzi said. “We have to watch out for those people and be advocates for them.”
Based on conversations last week with Village President Kit Ketchmark and Village Manager Keith Sbiral, officials may take another look at Brookfield’s open-burning ordinance, which was last amended in 1971.
“Obviously people have the pits,” said Ketchmark, who as the owner of a landscaping/brick paving business, has seen numerous fire pits and outdoor fireplaces in Brookfield backyards through the years.
Ketchmark said he’s asked Sbiral to take a look at nearby communities to see how they handle the fire pit issue and come back with information.
“We’ve got to take a look and see,” said Ketchmark, who added that he didn’t know whether or not the board would take up the issue any time soon. “If anything were to be changed, there would still be a lot of restrictions that go with that.”
The village code on open burning as it reads now is brief and highly restrictive.
“It shall be unlawful to burn paper, wood, garbage, leaves, building construction material, demolition debris or any other combustible material in open fires or metal containers,” the code states. “Such fires shall be allowed only in accordance with burning in any chamber specifically designed for that purpose and approved by the state environmental protection agency.”
That’s it. As written, it would appear that Brookfield’s code prohibits even outdoor charcoal and gas grills.
Brookfield’s code is more restrictive than the state of Illinois’ code regarding open burning. According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s website, there are two types of open burning allowed on private property without a permit — for cooking and campfires.
Fire pits would appear to fall under the heading of a campfire.
“[Fire pits] are probably more controlled and formalized now than it was 30 or 40 years ago,” said Ketchmark, who as a child remembered his father burning trash in a mesh garbage can on the public parkway.
Last fall, Greg Gates decided to forego the store-bought metal fire pit and upgrade. He built a round pit out of fire brick, fitted it with a steel ring and topped it with a mesh lid. He has two separate stacks of wood and a 32-gallon can stocked with kindling.
“Everything in the yard is built around the pit,” Gates said.