Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • May 2015
Written by 

Think before you burn

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), spring is the worst time of year for wildfires. While local ordinances and state regulations govern outdoor burning, open burning, burn barrels and fire pits are common throughout northeast Wisconsin. Although the WDNR strongly discourages individual property owners from outdoor burning, should you engage in outdoor burning, be sure to follow these rules and tips.

Only dry, clean and untreated paper and wood products which are not recyclable are legal to be burned in Wisconsin. As nearly all paper and cardboard is recyclable in northeast Wisconsin, there are few instances when burning paper and cardboard is acceptable. Clean, dry and untreated wood, brush, leaves, needles and grass are allowable to be burned. However, the WDNR encourages alternatives such as composting or leaving vegetative debris on the ground to burning this organic material.

Many materials are prohibited from being burned in Wisconsin. These include: garbage, plastics, electronics, shingles, asphalt, foam, furniture, carpet, wire, metal, aluminum, vinyl products, rubber products (including tires), oil-based products and painted or treated wood. Burning prohibited materials can emit dioxins, acid vapors, carcinogenic tars and heavy metals (such as lead, cadmium and chromium), as well as unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide.

Depending upon the county in which you reside (or burn in, if you engage in open burning when visiting “up north,” for instance), a state burning permit may or may not be required. Certain counties require a state burning permit all year, others only from Jan. 1 to May 31 and for some counties the WDNR does not regulate burning permits. However, residents must also comply with local ordinances, which may be more restrictive than state law. If you are uncertain about the regulations governing your community, start with your local municipal office or go to and search “fire.”

Campfires, used for cooking or warming purposes, do not require a state burning permit and are allowable anytime except during Emergency Burning Restrictions. Nevertheless, local ordinances can still prohibit all outdoor burning, including campfires or outdoor fireplaces.

Once you obtain any necessary burning permits, adhere to the restrictions on the permit. Keep an area free of flammable material ten feet around the burn pile, barrel or pit. Always have water and firefighting tools on hand when you burn, and never burn when it is windy. In addition, never leave your fire unattended and make sure it is cold before you leave.

According to the WDNR, if your fire escapes and starts a wildfire, you may be held liable for all suppression costs. Further, any person whose property is injured or destroyed by your fire, may also recover the value of timber or damages suffered in a civil action lawsuit.

As of March 30, Wisconsin has experienced 145 wildfires which have consumed over 300 acres. Managing yard and waste materials via composting, recycling or even landfilling are all preferred methods to open burning. If you choose to engage in outdoor burning, be sure to follow all rules and regulations and be safe to protect Wisconsin’s environment!

References: “Forest Fire Prevention.”

“Burn Barrel Information.”

Jennifer Semrau

Jennifer Semrau is the recycling specialist for Winnebago County Solid Waste in Oshkosh, overseeing the county’s recycling, hazardous material, container rental and sales/marketing programs. She is also the former president of the Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin and recipient of the 2013 Christy Dixon Recycler of the Year award. For more information, visit, call 920-232-1850 or “like” them on Facebook at

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