Don't Underestimate Bonfires: Case Study

Time and time again you hear the warnings about bonfires and how dangerous they can be, particularly around bonfire night. But this isn’t a story about Guy Fawkes Night.

No, it’s a story about a common or garden bonfire that just wouldn’t lie down and die. And it’s a salutary tale about flammable liquids too.

Compost Fan

Brian Shaw* enjoys his gardening but isn’t what you’d call a fanatic. In fact the reason why he was having bonfires over the weekend in question was nothing to do with gardening.

“I compost most stuff,” he explained, “I’ve got a run of three large heaps made from old pallets at the bottom of the garden. I even compost weeds, as long as you cut them off above ground they seem to be ok, you see. I never compost the roots though.”

But we are getting off track here. Desperately dragging Brian back to the subject we managed to find out why he was burning rubbish.

“It was wood offcuts from all the building,” he said, “we put a wood burner in the new house as well as an oil-fired boiler. But I worked out it would take us twenty years to get through what we had and there was nowhere to store it anyway.

House in the Garden

Brian had recently finished building a new five-bedroomed house in their garden and was about to move into it ready to prepare the old house for sale. The clearing up was getting in the way of doing all the little jobs that needed to be done inside the new house so that they could move into it.

“The other thing was that it was long bits,” he added, “not big enough to be useful to a builder, but it would all need cutting or chopping up before I could fit it in the fire, and, to be honest, I’d had enough of that, so I decided to burn a lot of it.”

Burning Ambition

The first day of burning went off without any problems, it was only the next morning that things went slightly awry. Showing wisdom beyond his years, Brian decided that the embers were still hot enough to be ignited with a splash of something flammable.

Fortunately there was a small can of petrol hanging about for the lawnmower, so that was pressed into action. Adding fresh wood on top of the embers, Brian stood back and shook petrol from the can onto the bonfire.

Trio of Mishaps

Only he didn’t step back far enough. Three things happened almost at once. The first was that the sparks from the embers ignited the petrol immediately and the wood from the fire exploded into the air. One of the chunks landed on Brian’s foot.

Before Brian’s foot became a target though, the flaming petrol was backtracking towards the petrol can he was holding. He dropped it just in time, as the fumes inside became a jet of flame that shot across the bonfire and charred a young acer that had been planted the weekend before.

The third event was a fireball from the centre of the fire which rose and dissipated in seconds. But not before it singed Brian’s eyebrows, either before or after the chunks of wood hit his foot.

Wiser After the Event?

“It just goes to show,” he said, talking to us some years after the event, “that using petrol on any fire is a big mistake.”

So he’s learnt his lesson then, and there won’t be any more flammable liquids near his bonfires?

“Well, you see, it would have been alright if I’d had some diesel instead, but I’d not finished connecting up the boiler for the new house, so there wasn’t any around. I’ve learnt my lesson now, I always have a can of diesel around for bonfires instead.”

We made our excuses and left, retreating slowly and carefully.

(*names have been changed)