Quite what Guy Fawkes would have made of it all is open to debate, but every year on November 5th, the UK lights up with excited faces at the prospect of a great Bonfire Night celebration. (And the kids get pretty excited too)
However, it’s also one of the busiest nights of the year for the Fire Brigade, simply because few people consider bonfire safety until far too late. So, plan your bonfire night celebrations now, and be safe, not a sorry statistic.
Bonfires At Home
If you are just having a small bonfire party in your own garden, you do not need to inform any authorities, but you do need to take care.
First of all, build your bonfire in a clear space, away from all buildings, fences, hedges, trees and garden sheds. Make sure you can walk all around the bonfire, and that no branches overlap the bonfire. Also, inspect the ground for potential trip hazards which may be obvious in daylight, but not at night.
Consider too where the smoke will go whatever the wind direction.
Always build your bonfire from natural materials, and never be tempted to burn hazardous rubbish such as car tyres, foams, plastic bottles or aerosols. The process of building a bonfire is great fun, but such a large pile of wood has a magnetic attraction for children and animals, which just love to build dens and nests inside.
So, before your bonfire party, and preferably in daylight, always check that the bonfire is completely empty of humans and animals.
Be thorough and check AGAIN just prior to lighting, using a strong electric torch to shine into every available space. Keep the torch handy to check the bonfire space at regular intervals.
Before you light your bonfire, you also should have in place emergency dampening, such as several buckets of water, a hosepipe connected to a tap, or a fire beater.
Finally, do not light your bonfire in windy conditions; your evening will still be fun without the danger of a fire burning out of control.
Always light a bonfire sensibly, and NEVER use inflammable liquids such as petrol. Flashback and explosions from petrol containers cause horrific injuries and burns, and can kill. Have patience and exercise caution; a well-lit bonfire will burn better and be much safer.
NEVER leave a bonfire unattended, so if necessary, draw up a rota of responsible adults to keep an eye on it from the moment it is lit, to the time it is extinguished. Keep small children clear at all times, and make sure they do not breathe in smoke or fumes.
At the end of the evening, always extinguish your bonfire before going to bed, using those buckets of water or the hosepipe. Check it from a bedroom window before you finally retire, just in case one part have flared up again.
So, here’s the Fire Protection Online quick checklist for a safe backyard bonfire:
- Prepare a safe bonfire site in a clear space
- Build a proper stacked bonfire, not a rubbish heap
- Check your bonfire for kids and creatures before lighting
- Fill buckets with water and keep the hose handy
- Have electric torches on hand
- Don’t light the bonfire in windy conditions
- NEVER LIGHT A BONFIRE WITH PETROL
- Always have someone watching a lit bonfire
- Keep young children and pets clear
- Keep your family and guests clear of smoke and fumes
- Make sure the bonfire is extinguished using water
- Check it really is extinguished half an hour later
- Dispose of the ashes sensibly the next day
Everything we’ve just said on bonfires at home also applies to larger bonfires at other locations, although check our public display section below, as a large bonfire event might also be seen as a semi-public event.
Always inform the local fire brigade of any bonfire planned, as they will then know it is intentional and not a fire emergency.
The bonfire site must be at least 18 metres from any buildings, trees, fences, etc, and remember that’s 18 metres from the edge of the bonfire, not the centre.
Also remember to look above your head, so that the bonfire is not located near any overhead telephone or power lines – the heat and flames will rise considerably higher than the bonfire itself.
Check where the smoke might go whatever the wind direction, as smoke should not obscure any road or railways lines near your bonfire site.
Public And Semi-Public Bonfire And Firework Display
Once you take a bonfire event beyond your own back garden, it could become a semi-public display in terms of the local fire brigade and the local council.
For example, a bonfire night party at a pub or a social club will be deemed a semi-public display. If in doubt, consult your local fire station, which will be happy to advise you.
As with a bonfire at home, if you are organising a public or semi-public display, your first consideration must be safety. If your event is run by a committee, make sure that from the very first planning stages that roles are clearly defined and important tasks are done.
All organisers of non-domestic displays need to comply with the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which requires organisers to take responsibility for the safety of employees and public at the event.
The Buck Stops Here
For the night itself, you need to appoint one person to be in overall control of the event. Choose the calmest, most organised person you know, preferably someone with previous event experience, and make sure they are involved at every stage of your planning for your event.
Choosing Your Site
As with large bonfires (above), your bonfire site need must be at least 18 metres from any buildings, trees, fences, etc. Ensure that the bonfire is not located near any overhead telephone or power lines, and work out where the smoke might go, whatever the wind direction.
Make sure the bonfire area is clear of any other combustible items, such as straw or your own firework display! Clear the site of undergrowth, and cut any grass short.
Damp the whole site down with water before building the bonfire, or take off the first layer of turf, to replace later. Consider how your bonfire will be protected before your event from arson, or from becoming a children’s hideout.
Now look at the overall site itself. You require a designated emergency vehicle access entrance, which must be kept clear at all times, and approved by your local fire station.
In addition, you need to provide well-signed entry/exit points for the public, and ensure these will be lit properly throughout the event. (It will be dark, remember!) Also consider the need of any disabled spectators in the event of an emergency evacuation.
Who to contact
The committee must also appoint a contact person who informs the relevant authorities as far in advance as possible.
This contact person needs to provide detail of the location, date and time of your event to the local fire station, the police, your local council environmental department, a first aid organisation, and possibly local resident or businesses that might be affected.
The responsible safety person/officer
The main priorities for the appointed safety person is to ensure that the bonfire is build safely, and that it is extinguished completely at the end of the event.
They also need to ensure that the public are kept at a safe distance from the fire and smoke, and that the event is properly insured against accident and damage.
Finally, that person must have access to a phone on the night in case the emergency services are required, so make sure all mobiles are fully charged and that all mobile phones have reception, PLUS someone know where the nearest fixed landline is, just in case.
The safety officer must also arrange a pre-agreed emergency signal that is audible over the entire site, but doesn’t frighten the audience! Make sure you know how this will be sounded, either through the PA system or by loudhailers.
Also ensure everyone on the organising side knows what this signal means and what the procedure is.
Next, your committee need to arrange and train safety stewards. For every 250 people who attend your event, you’ll need one trained steward, although the precise number should be settled in advance with the police or your local council.
In practice, you always need more, to help the public entering and leaving the site, and other roles such as car parking attendants, monitoring the bonfire, keeping the public clear of the bonfire and providing information.
Make sure the public know who your stewards are by providing high visibility jackets or vests. All stewards must be over the age of 18, and should carry two-way radios to contact the person in overall charge of the event.
They should also carry an electric torch to guide the crowd. If stewards are expected to use any fire-fighting equipment such as fire extinguishers, they should be trained how to use them in advance.
Bad Weather Provision
November is not known for its clear skies and dry weather, so make sure your organisation includes provision for all types of weather.
NEVER be tempted to light a wet bonfire using petrol or other inflammable liquids, and move safety barriers further away from the bonfire if the wind is strong. Ensure all stewards have weatherproof clothing and that exits are usable even in muddy conditions.
Bonfire Construction and Care
Building your bonfire
This is the fun bit, but never forget that the better it is built, the safer it will be.
Your bonfire should not exceed 6 metres in height (3 metres is recommended) and should be built in such a way that it collapses in on itself when burning, not drop outwards.
As with any fire, do not burn any hazardous items such as bottles, foam-filled furniture, paint tins or car tyres.
Avoid items that burn to a light ash such as cardboard or paper, which could drift on the wind.
You should put up barriers around the bonfire no less than twelve times the height of the bonfire itself, to keep the public clear. This is much further than you might imagine; a 3 metre high bonfire needs a barrier placed at a minimum of 36 metres from its outside edge.
Lighting Your Bonfire
Your bonfire can only be lit by one person, and don’t give the job to the mayor or a child.
Appoint a competent person who is dressed in a suitable low flammable outfit, such as a wool coat, trousers, gloves and a hood, if required.
Before you light your bonfire, check, check and check again! Using a strong electric torch, make sure that no children have crawled inside, or that wildlife has not built a home in it.
Check that no hazardous materials have been added by enthusiastic members of the public, such as aerosol cans, or fireworks. And check the bonfire is still as you built it, and that the materials have not shifted to make the structure lean, or be unsafe.
Use the 4 C’s check:
Always light your bonfire using dry kindling, such as newspaper, cardboard boxes, sacking, etc. Place these at the heart of your bonfire, and make sure you can light them safely by laying a fuse trail from the bonfire centre to the edge.
This can be created using twisted rags soaked in used engine oil, (prepared in advance) or you can use domestic firelighters.
Putting Out Your Bonfire
At the end of your event, stewards should clear the site of the public, and clear any rubbish from the site. At this point, the bonfire should be full extinguished using water. Ensure you have enough as it takes more than you think.
The safety officer and person in overall control of the event should not leave the site until you are both 100% certain the bonfire is fully out. If in doubt, wait, and look again after 20 minutes.
If you are unable to extinguish your bonfire for any reason, call the fire brigade immediately.
Here’s Fire Protection Online’s quick checklist to help with planning your bonfire event; use it to form the basis of your own list, which may include other requirements and provisions.
- Choose and check your bonfire location
- Check power provision to the site
- Appoint dedicated safety person
- Arrange public injury and damage insurance
- Inform all relevant authorities
- Arrange for a first aid organisation to be present
- Check mobile phone reception at site
- Book and train stewards
- Book site lighting, crowd barriers, PA system and fire fighting equipment
BEFORE THE EVENT
- Brief your stewards
- Test the emergency signal provision
- Brief any onsite traders about evacuation procedure
- Check fire fighting equipment is in place
- CHECK THE BONFIRE – 4 Cs check
- Ensure that emergency vehicle access is clear
- Test the exit lighting system
DURING THE EVENT
- Safety officer must be contactable at all times
- Overall event manager must be contactable at all times
- Emergency vehicle access must be kept clear
- Stewards to maintain vigilance at all times
AFTER THE EVENT
- Safely clear the public from the site
- Fully extinguish the bonfire
- Clear the site of rubbish
- Dispose of ash and any unburned items properly
- Replace surface turf
Most bonfire displays go off without a hitch, and they are the ones planned well in advance with safety in mind, leaving you to practice your firework appreciation technique.
All together now; Oooh! …. Aaah!