Heat lamps are prohibited in backyards because “Cambridge is a densely built-up community” – but that reasoning doesn’t seem to apply in public places. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Cambridge Fire Department is at it again: Citing laws and authorities that will leave you wondering if its leadership even understands what laws are, or how to use them.

In this case, it affects anyone in Cambridge who hoped to “get the most use of the outdoors during the ongoing pandemic” by setting up outdoor portable heating devices at their homes, as city officials put it Oct. 26. But the devices’ use, lumped in with fire pits and chimeneas that “use solid, liquid or gas fuels,” are prohibited.

The department cites two regulations, one being the state Department of Environmental Protection law about air pollution control. Air pollution, as the law says, is the presence of stuff in the air that causes a nuisance, is harmful and could “interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property.” The point of the law is that nobody “owning, leasing or controlling the operation of any air contamination source” should permit it to pollute the air, but nowhere in this statute are there discussions of individual, consumer-owned backyard fire pits, chimeneas or portable heating devices – because that’s not what this law is about. (If campfires and cheerful blazing fireplaces now constitute air pollution, that’s a bigger conversation.)

If the department were serious about citing the law, it wouldn’t refer the public to a 591-page document; it would point to the specific subsections that were relevant. Referring to this statute is a subterfuge.

Next cited is the state law that “authorizes the head of the fire department to make rules or orders that prevent or remedy any condition [that] may tend to become a fire hazard or cause a fire.”

“Cambridge is a densely built-up community. Use of these devices presents too much of a danger for them to be allowed,” the city said.

Cambridge is indeed densely populated and “built-up,” but this logic is achieved by zooming out to a satellite view. This is like pointing out that the city has one T stop for every square mile of land, which feels very different depending whether you live on Essex Street a block from the Central Square stop or on Glenwood Avenue, way down in Cambridgeport. There are all sorts of different backyard settings in this city, and all different kinds of devices that can be placed in them. Somehow there’s no combination that’s safe?

The state law to which the city and fire department refers calls for “a comprehensive fire safety code,” a standard our department has fallen short of, and notes that the point of a code is not just to prevent fires with blanket decrees, but can also be to “remedy any condition [that] may tend to become a fire hazard or to cause a fire.” Inspecting and remedying is what fire officials do in commercial kitchens for ovens, and are theoretically doing across the city by allowing heat lamps – some with mighty blazes – to be set up at restaurants’ outdoor dining areas. Restaurateurs apply through the department because they might be fire hazards, but plenty of heat lamps have been approved. Why don’t use of these devices present too much of a danger to be allowed at restaurants? How can the multiple lamps needed at restaurants cause less “air pollution” than the regulations the city cites to block their use in a backyard?

(In regard to that “comprehensive fire safety code,” it’s worth noting that the department website has a page on Chiminea Use Regulation that says simply that “Chimeneas are prohibited from use in the city.” The October memo expands this to fire pits and other outdoor portable heating devices without explanation, typical sloppiness that invites confusion.)

This all follows the department’s appalling behavior around candles over the past few years, with exactly the same slapdash disregard for logic. In that case, it wasn’t about prohibiting fire pits by talking about air pollution, but about fire inspectors arguing a bar couldn’t have candles set out for atmosphere by pointing to a state law that regulated portable cooking equipment. It tried to slip a retroactive regulation about candles onto the fire department website, but officials wound up admitting to state judges that there was no such law; the current version remains absurd. And fire officials said the strict enforcement of a non-existent law was based on a 1990 calamity it implied resulted from candles but actually was caused by a propane tank – similar to those being placed around the city by the dozens.

Our fire department and city officials as a whole should be better than than this, but – considering our jumble of mask and social distancing strategies as well – continue to apply rules unevenly while citing experts and laws without justification, abusing science, facts and logic and bending to economics without being honest enough to admit it. Let’s be the place that does this stuff right.

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