There are few things more enjoyable than a bonfire. They’re a popular social event in any season. Bonfires always draw a crowd. But we’re talking about the kind of bonfire you use to clean up your yard and remove debris.
On my homestead, we burn piles of brush, debris, old, dead Christmas trees, and spreading brambles. Sometimes, we gather brush to burn to host a bonfire; other times, we host a bonfire because we have a lot to burn.
Whatever the reason for backyard burning, it’s always essential to burn safely. No one wants to be responsible for a wild, barn, or house fire. Careless burning is bad for everyone.
If you want to burn some brush or garden debris, there are a few practical steps that you should follow to stay safe.
Prepare For Your Fire
Here in rural, northern New England, we don’t have many fire regulations for backyard burning. We also tend to have humid summers and plenty of consistent precipitation.
During most years, there are only a few days in the summer when the local counties put out a “high fire danger” notice. In the fall, autumn rains make it easy to have big burns, and winter and spring are full of snow and slush to keep bonfires in their place.
But not every location is as lucky. For some people, the danger of a backyard fire getting out of hand is consistently high.
Talk to your local town hall or fire department to learn the fire regulations in your area. Remember that even if your local regulations are usually casual, changing seasons or weather can change those regulations.
Keep abreast of weather patterns and reach out for new information when the weather pattern changes.
Avoid Windy or Dry Days
Even if regulations don’t prohibit it, some weather is better for backyard burning than others. Windy weather and excessively dry days can be dangerous times to burn.
On windy days, sparks can be blown everywhere. Tiny sparks can be carried on the wind and then settle in clusters of dry grass, hay, sticks, or pine needles. You might not even notice an unattended patch of earth smoldering until the new patch catches fire.
It’s a good idea to avoid backyard burning if the wind is over ten miles an hour. If the wind is hovering around 10 miles an hour, look closely at the direction it’s blowing towards. If your house, barn, or woodpile is in that direction, reconsider your location or fire plans.
Check for Rain
If you’re planning a burn, keep an eye on the forecasts. I like to plan to burn after a rainstorm. I’ll cover my wood and brush with a big tarp during the rain, and then set up the firepit when the rains have passed.
Rain-soaked ground helps keep the fire contained, and when all the surrounding trees and underbrush are soaked, stray sparks have nowhere dry to land.
It’s also a good choice to plan your backyard burning for the evening before heavy rain. That way, the downpour can douse your firepit again after you’ve finished.
When choosing where to burn, stand where you want your fire to sit and look around. Turn in a complete circle to see if anything within a ten-foot radius might cause trouble with your fire.
Don’t set your firepit right under a birch tree, no matter how pretty it might look in social media photos. When it comes to trees that burn easily, like birch, pine, and fir, I like to give an extra ten feet of distance.
Once you’ve cleared a circle around the firepit, look up. Power lines and tree branches should be nowhere in sight. Remember that fires can climb pretty high, and can shoot sparks up even higher.
Keep Your Tools At Hand
When you’re backyard burning, ensure you have plenty of water nearby. Just in case, a hose or a few buckets of water should always be near your fire. Having a shovel and rake nearby’s also a good idea.
You can use the shovel to smother stray coals and the rake to keep the fire within the pit.
Fire likes to spread out. If left to its own devices, you’re fire will naturally broaden its base. With the right tools nearby, you can continuously push stray debris back into the heart of the blaze.
And if sparks start flying or the wind picks up, a little water can turn a potentially dangerous situation into something much easier to manage.
Wear Protective Clothing
First, don’t wear anything you care about when doing your backyard burning. If you put on your favorite jeans and then start working on your burn pile, chances are pretty good those jeans are going to become stinky and holey.
Keep elbow-length fire mitts handy, and consider wearing a mask and eye protection.
Prepare Your Firepit
Set up a firepit by digging out the earth and then lining the pit itself with stones, bricks, or cement blocks. These liners will keep the coals under control and remind everyone who feeds the fire to keep within the circle.
When building a firepit, many people make the mistake of thinking bigger is better. But that’s not true. A huge firepit can lead to an overwhelming, out-of-control fire.
It can also lead to a smothered, awkward fire that’s hard to feed and keep going. The ideal firepit is more moderately sized – most people think a firepit with a diameter of about three to four feet is ideal.
At that size, you can still feed your fire easily, and it won’t get so hot that you don’t want to get close to it.
We built our firepit on sand and surrounded it with rocks. The rocks are low enough that the fire gets plenty of air to breathe. Outside of the rocks, more sand spreads out for another foot or so, making it less likely that stray embers will spread.
Time to Burn
In rural areas, people will burn almost anything, but that’s not always a good idea. Burning is a great way to clear garden debris like sick plants, leaves, branches, and invasive plants. If you have a dead tree, an old wooden fence, or other scraps of natural debris, a bonfire is a fantastic way to eliminate it.
Don’t burn trash, though! It can be toxic, and it’s gross.
There’s nothing more disgusting than smelling a fire with plastic or rubber on it. Keep old tires, trash bags, household junk, meat, and other refuse off your bonfire. These items not only pollute the air as they burn, but they also turn your yard into a slagheap.
Burning trash and junk is also illegal in many areas. If you want to burn trash, look into local laws and ordinances. Make sure that you keep your burnpile free of dangerous or illegal items. Avoid anything with the potential to explode or release toxins in the air.
Throwing Gasoline on the Fire?
Sometimes, fires are hard to start. Whether it’s the weather, the wood you’re burning, or your firebuilding technique, sometimes fires struggle. When you’re trying to get a fire going, and it keeps smoldering or smothering, you might be tempted to help it along.
But throwing gasoline, lighter fluid, kerosene, or other flammable liquids on the fire is not a good idea. Yes, your fire will suddenly kick up. It won’t struggle to burn while it’s consuming the flammable substance.
Gasoline on a fire is a metaphor for a bad situation for a good reason. It’s never a good idea.
Pouring flammables on a fire won’t always help keep a struggling fire going, either. But when they do keep the fire going, they can quickly cause your fire to get out of hand.
Gasoline can also cause explosions. An explosion can cause your fire to get out of hand and damage the people and places nearby. Keep dangerous flammables far from your firepit and never use them to start your fire.
Putting Out the Fire
Once you’re done backyard burning, it’s time to put out the remains of your fire. No matter how late it is, never leave a fire to smolder unattended. Always take the time to fully douse your fire before walking away.
Don’t trust all that gray ash when the fire is burned out. Fires can retain heat and reignite days after they’ve burned out if they haven’t been properly doused. When you’re fire is done, soak the area with water completely.
When you’ve drowned the fire, take your shovel and turn over the ashes. Often, you’ll notice that heat and smoke are coming from the underside of the ashes. Then, drown the fire again with water.
Repeat this process a couple of times to make sure all the residual coals are extinguished. Then, recheck the fire pit the next day to ensure everything is truly doused and out.