Two Platt Park residents were enjoying a late-winter evening, sitting on their patio with a fire in the chimenea warding off the chill, when they suddenly got some unexpected visitors. A Denver fire truck had pulled up and unloaded a full complement of firefighters suited up for a big blaze. Turns out that chimeneas — and all of those other popular outdoor fireplaces and fire pits — are illegal in Denver.
"You can't have an open burn without a permit," says Lieutenant Phil Champagne, department spokesman. "Home Depot doesn't tell you that."
But a few people are aware of the ban, including Mrs. Kravitz types who frequently alert the department of illegal burns. "People don't hesitate to call us," Champagne notes. "They snitch on their neighbors all the time."
While some of those neighbors might be motivated by nothing more than spite, many have serious health concerns. According to Familiesforcleanair.org, wood-smoke pollution is even more hazardous than secondhand smoke from cigarettes, aggravating asthma and causing cancer; the site urges people to alert their local representatives to the dangers of outdoor fireplaces.
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And when the Denver Fire Department gets a call, it has to answer. "There's a great tendency to neglect those kinds of things," Champagne points out, adding that on windy days, like the ones that Denver has recently experienced, fires can quickly get out of hand. "It seems harsh, but you never know." Still, the firefighters who answer the call try to deal gently with homeowners, issuing a warning not to light a fire again unless they get a special permit signed by both the fire department and the Denver Department of Environmental Health. Only a handful have ever bothered to apply for those, Champagne says. And if the fire department gets called to an address a second time, a homeowner who gets hot under the collar could face a $999 fine or six months in jail.
The Platt Parkers don't know who turned them in, or why. "It seems like a silly use of the department's resources," says the man of the house. "Would it be legal if I burned pot?" He's not testing that theory — but he's found another way to get revenge on the nosy neighbors. He's bought a smoker, which is definitely legal in Denver, and fires it up several times a week, filling the neighborhood with the scent of roasting meat.
He can only hope the snitches are vegetarians.
Where there's smoke, there's ire.