Fire! It is perhaps the oldest discovery of man along with the wheel; tremendously aiding us as a species as we evolved. Without it we couldn’t have forged our tools or survived extreme colds, allowing us to migrate to points beyond what climates our natural state would bare. But it has also served as a weapon of war and destroyed entire villages of early man when mishandled. A fire can provide a warm remembrance on a vacation with family or simply a weekend getaway with close friends as we spend a night under the stars allowing its glow and dancing flames to mesmerize us.
Unlike small campfires, bonfires are great fires that consume large amounts of wood fuel and can generate flames that can reach three to four stories in height or greater, depending on its design. Thought to be a Gaelic tradition, large bonfires served to burn the bones of slaughtered animals and may have been associated with rituals to celebrate the fall harvest and the end of summer. The ritual aspect is prevalent today in events like Guy Fawkes Night in Great Britain, lighting up the southern Mississippi River levees of Louisiana to help guide Papa Noël during Christmas and at traditional festivities in Brazil during the month of June.
Because they cater to large gatherings the size of a bonfire mandates that precautions must be taken upfront before any celebratory action begins. Recalling the message our elders taught us about not playing with fire, here are some tips to take to reduce the risks that could turn a fun evening into a tragic event.
Areas that are designated for a bonfire must meet local codes and be approved by fire marshals where required. Care must be taken to keep them at safe distances from homes and businesses. Smoke that drifts into neighborhoods and commercial districts can aggravate lung conditions like bronchitis and asthma for some and create unwanted odors that linger for days and weeks.
Clear an area three to four times the diameter of the bonfire base of any flammable material, natural or man-made. Keep all flammable liquids stored and away from any fire, especially if there are kids around. Flame height and heat intensity should be a consideration when thinking of making a bonfire under trees. If the tongues of the flame reach high enough and the heat is intense enough, branches that seem out of reach can still be ignited. The best tip here is to avoid any bonfire under tree canopies.
Know what the wind conditions are going to be like and how arid ground conditions are. Strong winds can carry burning embers great distances and if it has been dry over the last week or two the likelihood of them starting a fire are enhanced. As a backup make sure you have a means to extinguish any fire that gets out of control. Bringing commercial fire extinguishers along with you is perhaps the most convenient way to do this. Otherwise, have enough containers of water on hand to handle most contingencies. If the event site is located near a lake or stream, make the fire as close to it as possible. Not only does it allow quick access to water you’ll need to handle a problem but usually allows more space to prevent igniting trees and limits the direction a fire could travel should things go wrong.
Bonfires also serve as a means for many rural people to dispose of their trash and garden waste. Many of the precautions that apply to celebratory bonfires should be adhered to as well. Alert your neighbors and fire department beforehand to prevent them from thinking the worst and reacting defensively unnecessarily. Do not dispose of any materials that would release toxic chemicals into the air such as plastics, rubber or wood that has been sealed with paints or lacquers. Remember too that all fires emit CO2 and particulate matter so utilize them as infrequently as possible to dispose of waste and at reasonable times that won’t disrupt your neighbors.
Finally, never walk away from a fire that is not cold. Bonfires generate a lot of coal and ash that lie beneath the surface material. After the flames have been extinguished disperse the remaining ashes to prevent them from burning and then douse it with plenty of water or fire retardant solution. You may have to do this exercise two or three times to insure there is no remaining heat there to ignite after you have left.
Leave yourself a pleasant memory of any celebratory bonfire by taking these necessary precautions beforehand and afterwards. You don’t want to ruin it all and endanger others and their property by forgetting that fire is both friend and enemy.