An article on the BBC News website about the "Disaster Girl" meme claims that this photograph of a burning building was taken in 2005 in North Carolina at a "controlled burn", which the BBC explains is "a fire intentionally started to clear a property".

I was quite stunned by this information. Was/is this a legal way to demolish wooden buildings in the USA? Is this method used often?

(I suppose it's quicker than taking a building apart bit by bit, but the debris becomes unusable, I guess you have to pay the fire department to keep an eye on things, you probably need insurance... I can't imagine it being much cheaper than hiring a bulldozer.)

Disaster Girl meme

Disaster Girl meme, photograph by Dave Roth

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    A legal question, not a diy question.
    – Solar Mike
    May 1, 2021 at 6:38
  • Flagged for relocation to law.se May 1, 2021 at 23:32
  • The answer would typically be resolved under local ordinances and would not have a uniform national or even statewide resolution in the U.S.
    – ohwilleke
    May 3, 2021 at 19:06

4 Answers 4


Most controlled burns are used as training exercises. A search of the Mebane FD page (where this picture was taken) shows multiple instances of training burns.

Also from local press about training from 2018, “A lot of departments have stopped doing it (control burns). We’re still pretty active with it, we’ve got five to burn in the next two months.”

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    This is exactly my experience. I've never seen one where they just stand by and let it burn "as a demolition method" (it's highly polluting, among other things) but burning a building that's wanted gone as a live fire training exercise (with the building ending up gone at the end) is something I've seen happen somewhat commonly, if not all that often.
    – Ecnerwal
    May 1, 2021 at 14:04
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    @Ecnerwal The last couple local controlled buildings burns were barns that were deemed unsafe to enter to develop a safe demolition plan.
    – NoSparksPlease
    May 1, 2021 at 14:42
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    Yep, a few years back s friend's parent's old farmhouse was burned as a training. A few days before they had a house party where we had carte blanche to kick holes in the walls and literally trash the place, with the exception that the windows were to be untouched. The windows being untouched was important to the fire training aspect for some reason. May 1, 2021 at 14:53
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    My brother wanted to rebuild a house in the same place we all grew up in, rural area. The city gave the FD permission to have a practice burn. It was a long time ago, so I'm not sure, but I think they had to strip the composite shingles off the roof first, bc burning them is very polluting. the FD even added additional combustibles like stacks of old pallets in various places. They lit it off, put it out, then lit it off and put it out again...all for practice. Then let the rest of it burn to the ground. Sad to see in a way, but it was not worth trying to remodel.
    – George Anderson
    May 1, 2021 at 15:01
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    In places where entitlements (legal right to build) are a huge PitA, you are better off "replacing the ax handle three times and the head twice" on an existing building, because remodeling is treated much more lightly than scrape-and-new-build. In some places people will even jack up a largely worthless and obsolete structure several feet to lay a new foundation and ground floor underneath it, then lavishly remodel the structure. All to retain some entitlement they can't get today for a sane cost. May 1, 2021 at 23:36

Yes. Totally up to the city and local fire department. Most ordinances have the ability to do this, although some will permit it, some will permit it with a number of constraints and some will never permit it.

We just had an old farmhouse burned through control burn in rural midwest (IL). There was one firetruck out there, never got out the hose... We had to basically rake the perimeter of at least 100 feet for any debris that could catch on fire. Fire was started on second floor and worked its way down. Took about 3 hours. Things like tubs/sinks/toilets were already taken out and to a dumpster so when it was down there was a small pile of debris that "burned" in the basement of the house. We covered it with dirt a few days later.

So the answer is yes but it is very very dependent on where you are. You wouldn't have a controlled burn if there were neighbors next door. This usually happens in rural areas or areas were there are a series of abandoned houses.

That house next door to the house being burnt took at least minor damage. No way the homeowners (if there were any) didn't have to sign off on it.


I'm not sure how other countries operate, but in the US, most laws exist at the State level, not the federal level. Even major crimes like murder, theft, and rape are all state laws, not federal ones.

For this reason, it's sometimes difficult to make meaningful statements about what's legal/illegal in the entire country. For instance, in some states marijuana is completely legal and sold openly in stores. In others you could face jail for possessing even small amounts of it.

So whether it's legal to demolish buildings via a controlled fire is entirely up to the state, and city. There's no federal prohibition against this.

Is it common? Not particularly. In some areas it might be more common than others (this is a BIG country). It's occasionally done to allow firefighters to practice firefighting techniques. But it's not really a common method of destroying houses for obvious reasons.

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    Marijuana possession is 100% illegal in every part of the United States. Title 21, section 811 USC: The Controlled Substances Act. Obama’s Justice Department released a memo stating they wouldn’t interfere with states’ decriminalization, but this was discretionary, not a law. Congress could repeal it, or the Supreme Court could declare it unconstitutional. But neither has happened.
    – Jacob Krall
    May 1, 2021 at 15:43
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    @JacobKrall, marijuana possession is criminalized under the Commerce Clause, because most marijuana (at least until recently) was shipped across state lines as interstate (illegal) commerce. That logic doesn't apply to things like theft or murder.
    – Mark
    May 1, 2021 at 17:53
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    @mark the interpretation of the commerce clause is incredibly broad and goes far beyond 'it has to cross state lines'. Regardless this is irrelevant to the point Jacob made, marijuana is illegal everywhere in the US due to federal law.
    – eps
    May 1, 2021 at 17:58
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    @JacobKrall This is not a discussion of law, but an example of how it's difficult to make blanket statements about the US. Your example of federal law is an excellent example of this. How many people of the hundreds of thousands of people who legally bought marijuana in states where it's legal and taxed were charged under federal law? I think the answer is exactly zero. Laws that aren't enforced aren't laws. Sodomy was illegal in many states, but basically never enforced. It was only struck down by the supreme court in the early 2000s. May 1, 2021 at 18:09
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    "Even major crimes like murder, theft, and rape are all state laws, not federal ones": there are federal murder statutes, too, but in principle they only apply when there is some reason for federal jurisdiction, such as the victim being a federal official or a diplomat, or the crime taking place outside of any state's jurisdiction. Apart from that minor point, this answer is of course correct.
    – phoog
    May 2, 2021 at 14:27

It should be pointed out that while that is true, controlled burns need not be demolitions methods always. In addition to fire fighter training (often used by FD controlled facilities with structures that are designed to survive multiple fires) they are also used as garbage removal (usually burning leaf litter or yard waste, or large amounts of cut wood) and, ironically, to fight fires (usually to combat wild fires, controlled burns of empty wilderness land allow fire fighters to control or prevent a forest fire by burning the plant matter in an area, thus preventing an out of control wild fire from spreading to another area.).

In all cases, the inherit danger of losing control of the burn is present and changes in at a control burn can often result in things catching fire that weren't meant to catch fire.

As stated in other answers, the legalities of controlled burns depend on sub-naional laws, often state or even more likely county and local laws and ordinances as to when and where such controlled burns are permissible and they can even vary on seasonal variations (States like Florida, Texas, and Southern California do not have proper four seasons, but a wet and dry season. Burning might be restricted in Dry seasons as it's more likely to get out of control under these conditions, where as wet seasons will have a lot of soaked fuel that is more difficult to light by accident.). Generally, because of the size, matters related to restrictions based on climate and environment are managed by a state or local government depending on the size of the state and the variation of the climates (It's not a hard science. For example, there's more regional variation in climate in Maryland (which is generally divided into Western, Central, and Eastern and very diverse geography between the three regions has earned the state the unofficial nickname "America in Miniature" due to it having regions that mimic most U.S. landscapes) than there is in Florida, despite the fact that Florida is massive by land area and population in comparison but tends to have the same weather everywhere (Florida is the flattest state in the union).

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