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Bonfires: A Living Tradition

Updated on October 29, 2013
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Neil grew up in Smithfield, Utah, on a hobby farm and learned gardening from his father and other area farmers that he worked with.

A simple bonfire in a pit surrounded by cinder blocks
A simple bonfire in a pit surrounded by cinder blocks
A fire in an outdoor fireplace
A fire in an outdoor fireplace
Make sure your chimney is cleaned on a regular basis, and free of obstructions.
Make sure your chimney is cleaned on a regular basis, and free of obstructions.
When a regular bonfire is not allowed (or convenient) a gas or propane fire can be a suitable replacement.
When a regular bonfire is not allowed (or convenient) a gas or propane fire can be a suitable replacement.

Storytellers and the bonfire.

It is tradition for many camps even today, be they scout, hunting, or just a day on the beach, to build a bonfire and tell stories around it. The term ‘fireside’ often reefers to a lecture or ‘story-telling’ session. In times past those sessions would be told by the fire. Even after the advent of central heating, but before the advent of television most homes had fireplaces, and this would be a gathering place for family and friends to relate stories and adventures.

There is something hypnotic about a bonfire. We can watch for hours as the various pieces of wood emit flame and embers then slowly die down to coals that glow with the invisible flames from inside the wood. The word bonfire was shortened from bone fire, and can stir up images from the huge camp fires some of us remember from scouting to the walk-in fireplaces often found in opulent homes in the movies, and in times of old. Lectures are sometimes referred to as firesides stemming from the time when the lore of a culture was passed from one generation to the next while sitting around the bonfire. Camping out was never complete with out a bonfire.

Fire can, of course be a dangerous foe when burning out of control, but it can also be the ultimate tool providing light and heat for cooking or survival. One of the most important things taught in many survival courses is how to make a fire with limited resources. In a survival situation fire becomes a companion for the lost and a signal for searchers who may be looking for the lost traveler. All of that said, it is vital that bonfires remain under control. Failure of this important element can quickly change a comforting bonfire into a dangerous wildfire taking with it homes and possessions that can not be replaced, and forests that will take years to grow back.

General rules for keeping bonfires under control are fairly straight forward. Make sure the fire is in an approved area. In the wild, this means in a ring of rock or metal with all flammable material moved well away from the fire and no overhanging branches or wires. Inside the house, it means a well maintained fireplace with no furniture or objects within three feet, (more distance would be better). Any and all spark arresters should be kept in place to ensure the absence of burn-holes in surrounding carpet and floors as well as roofs and surrounding homes. A yearly chimney inspection and appropriate ventilation is vital for the safety of the occupants in the home! In all cases the means of extinguishing the fire should be kept close at hand. A commercial extinguisher would be best for indoors, while a bucket of water and a shovel are adequate for outdoors. The most important rule is NEVER LEAVE A BONFIRE UNATTENDED!!! The results will never ever be good. When the fire is done or you are leaving the fire unattended (like going to bed for the night or leaving the house or camp for a quick trip) put out the fire! Unless your fireplace is completely contained and designed to keep fires under control without human intervention put out the fire when you’re done! The general rule of douse, stir, then douse again is good for using water, but then reach down run your hand just above the dead coals. At the end of a scouting trip with my son a leader came by, and checked out fire, he then stirred up a hot spot we’d missed. Make sure your fire is out!

Another element to consider when building a bonfire is local laws and restrictions. In national forests and wilderness areas it is illegal to build fires outside of designated areas. Leave no trace is a philosophy that is vital for wilderness areas. While a bonfire can provide comfort to the weary traveler, it can leave scars or marks that will last for generations if not taken care of both during and after the fire has burned away. In homes and neighborhoods, air quality restrictions may be in place during certain times of the year. Make sure you are aware of such restrictions.

There are purists who will claim that wood is the only appropriate fuel for a bonfire, however the origins of bonfires were bones. Wood is the most common fuel for bonfires, but coal can be used as well. Gas fireplaces can be an option where air quality is an issue, as long as it is handled safely. Older gas fireplaces can look kind of tacky, but the hypnotic affect of the flames is what counts. Make sure the gas fireplace is properly vented and maintained. Charcoal should only be used outdoors, and is best for cooking rather than watching as there is little flame. If you choose to cook over a bonfire, you will need to make sure it has burned to a good bed of coals before cooking.

Starting a bonfire is easy with matches or some form of lighter (these usually have a striker that can be used to light tinder even if there isn’t any fuel left in the lighter). Light the tinder (this can be crumpled paper if using matches or a lighter that works, but cotton or other similar material is best for other means of creating a spark). Once you see flames, add twigs and then move up to larger pieces of wood. An alternative material for tinder can be alcohol wipes or cotton pads soaked in petroleum jelly. These will ignite when hit with a spark, so care must be taken, but as the alcohol (or jelly) burns it can start twigs and the wipe itself on fire. Other extremely flammable liquids should not be used to start fires as they can ignite causing serious burns and often don’t keep the fire going long enough to start larger pieces of wood anyway.

Bonfires can be a comfort and companion in many situations, but only if handled safely.



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