The Perils of Fire Pits

Backyard fire pits are increasingly popular, and accidents are on the rise.

On a cool night last fall, Michele Mele, 42, of Hopatcong, was relaxing at a friend’s backyard fire pit, her chair drawn close.

When she got up to go to the bathroom, her foot got stuck between the chair and the low stone side of the pit. She lost her balance and fell in, the left side of her face going flat into the flames.

“My friend’s neighbor reacted so quickly to pull me out. I couldn’t have been down for more than 10 seconds,” Michele says.

It was enough time for Michele to suffer second-degree burns from her eyebrow to her jaw, as well as burns on her hand and knee. “The next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance,” she recalls. “The EMT happened to be a girl I knew from high school. She was telling me, ‘Michele, you’re gonna be okay, we’re taking you to Saint Barnabas, it’s the best place to go.’”

Michele was admitted to The Burn Center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, New Jersey’s only state-certified burn center, which provides highly specialized treatment for burn patients from throughout the state.

The Path To Healing

Since the pandemic hit, people are sticking closer to home and seeking to enhance their outdoor spaces. As a result, fire pit sales have been on the rise—and so have fire pit injuries.

“We have definitely seen an uptick in injuries from fire pits, for both adults and children,” says Michael Marano, MD, Medical Director of The Burn Center. “These injuries tend to be mixed—flame burns as well as contact burns—and tend to be deep.”

In the days after the accident, Michele, who had been in shock at first, began to have significant pain. “I couldn’t really eat and could barely drink,” she says. “My left eye was swollen closed.”

Each morning, she would be taken to what’s known as the “tank room” to be bathed and to have dead skin scraped off her face. “Then the whole team would come in to evaluate how my face was healing,” Michele says. Her face was covered with topical antimicrobial ointments and then rewrapped with gauze.

She was surprised to find that part of her treatment was a high-calorie diet with lots of protein—meatloaf, chicken, mac and cheese, whatever she wanted from the hospital menu—and lots of fruit juice. To stay flexible, she made sure to keep her left knee moving and worked her left hand with a little ball.

“Everyone at the hospital was so nice. They didn’t just look at you like a patient with your head wrapped. They’d talk to you, ask about your family,” Michele says.

After 12 days, Michele was able to go home with ointment and a few small bandages. Less than a week after that, she went back to the gym. “I know I was lucky,” she says. “It could have been a lot worse.” Her advice to others: “Be aware of your surroundings while around a fire pit, and keep your distance.”

Safety Tips For Fire Pits

• Keep the fire pit a minimum of 10 feet away from the house.

• Have a bucket of water, a hose or a fire extinguisher at hand.

• Place a spark screen on the top.

• Keep children and pets at least three feet away.

• Afterward, spread out coals, ash and unburned logs and saturate with water until embers die.

• Check with the fire department for local fire pit regulations.

To learn more about The Burn Center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, call 973.322.5920 or visit www.njburncenter.com.