Garden Bonfire Safety

Whether as part of a celebration, or to get rid of garden refuse, having a bonfire can be both a joyous experience and an effective waste solution – but without due care and consideration it can also be dangerous and a public nuisance.

The Primal Thrill of the Bonfire

In a society where health and safety legislation is all pervasive and environmental concerns grow ever louder it may seem remarkable that you are still able to indulge in something so primal and potentially hazardous as having a bonfire in your own garden. The practice is nevertheless frowned upon, but as long as you follow certain simple guidelines in terms of staying safe and not causing a too much of a public and environmental nuisance then you have every right to do as humans have been doing for thousands of years.

Appropriate Location and Timing

Fire needs little encouragement to spread. To restrict the bonfire’s movement to the designated area it should be given ample space away from anything its licking flames might take a fancy to, such as sheds, trees, hedges, fences and cables. Nevertheless, even with such safeguarding, it’s still advisable to avoid lighting a bonfire on a particularly breezy day because the wind will whip up the flames and both increase the risk of the fire spreading in the direction of the wind and make the fire harder to control.

With due care you can safely contain the bonfire within your own garden, but it is very difficult to prevent the unpleasant smoke it generates from drifting into neighbouring spaces and into the road, particularly if there is strong wind. On a damp and still day the smoke will linger in the air.

To maintain good neighbourly relations and minimise reason for complaint, show consideration by warning any neighbours about your bonfire plans in advance, and choose a time that would be less likely to affect the their own garden activities; a dark, chilly evening would likely be much less disruptive than a sunny Sunday afternoon, for instance.

The Right and Wrong Materials

The level of nuisance your bonfire creates will also depend on the materials that you burn. Bonfires should not be used as an excuse to dispose of any old household rubbish. Garden bonfires may not be illegal, but, under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, getting rid of domestic waste in a way likely to cause pollution or injurious to health certainly is.

The fire should only be built using dry, organic materials. Damp items will create more smoke, especially if left to smoulder. The use of materials like rubber or plastic, or anything containing foam or paint, will result in harmful toxic fumes and should obviously be avoided, as should cans, bottles or canisters because they can explode when burnt.

Bonfire Supervision

The list of materials not appropriate for bonfires also extends to any flammable substances that might be used to light or revive the fire, such as petrol, paraffin or spirits. However inert a bonfire might seem, these liquids can cause it to flare up unexpectedly, or provoke an explosion from the build up of their fumes.

Once the bonfire is lit, at least one adult needs to be supervising it at all times and, in case of any unexpected difficulties, a bucket of water or garden hose should always be on hand. Given their unpredictability and lack of fire safety awareness, both children and pets should be kept well away from the bonfire, with animals ideally locked up indoors.

Once the bonfire has died down the embers should not be allowed to smoulder but instead sprayed with water to stop the fire from reigniting.

Is it Necessary?

However dutiful you are in your efforts in making sure your bonfire is a safe and responsible one, there is no such thing as an environmentally friendly bonfire; air pollution is an unavoidable by-product of fire. That doesn’t mean you should avoid bonfires altogether – a lot of our actions come at a “cost” and we can’t be expected to stop everything we do – but rather be conscientious of the impact you are having on the environment by only having one when necessary, and when there is no alternative.

For instance, a lot of organic waste, such as grass cuttings, leaves, newspapers and vegetable waste, doesn’t need to be burnt at all but can be better disposed of through composting. Bonfires are, however, usually the most practical way of disposing of woody or diseased waste that cannot be composted.

If you want to celebrate an occasion such as Guy Fawkes Night or New Year’s Eve then nothing can compete with the great bonfire, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have one – just as long as you take care.