How to Start a Bonfire (Safely!)

Pelican Flyer  |  June 28, 2020

The radiating warmth and unmistakable smell of a backyard bonfire are some of the best parts of summer and fall. But, by their very nature, bonfires can be dangerous. Knowing how to properly build and control one is crucial to the success and safety of your fire-centric gathering.

Learning how to start a bonfire is an excellent life skill that you’ll return to year after year. Luckily, if you know how to start a campfire, you’re already halfway there! However, there are a few key differences between campfires and bonfires which are important to know before you start either one. Bonfires tend to be larger and may be used to safely burn scrap wood, whereas campfires are much smaller and may be used to provide light and deter bugs. Unlike campfires, bonfires are not typically used for cooking.

Here’s how to start a bonfire safely.

1. Check with Your City

Before building a bonfire, make sure to check the rules of your city. Some municipalities require a permit for bonfires, while others ban them outright. Almost all prohibit burning specific items like yard waste and household trash. Be sure to check (and follow) the rules before igniting!

2. Pick Your Bonfire Spot

Where you build a bonfire will determine some aspects of how you build it. For example, if you want to build a bonfire on the beach, you will need to dig a hole deep enough to keep it contained. If you want to build a fire in your backyard, you’ll either need to buy or make a fire pit. A fire pit should be surrounded by non-flammable materials, such as metal or stone, to keep the fire contained. Digging a hole in the ground can also help keep it contained.

3. Build a Fire

Building a bonfire is not unlike building any other kind of fire. It starts out the exact same way, with a small layer of tinder or fire-starter at the bottom. Wear a headlamp or use an LED flashlight to see what you’re doing if it is already dark. After placing the tinder at the bottom of the pit, you want to gather kindling and layer it on top. Small, dry sticks are ideal for tinder. Once you have a small fire going with your kindling and tinder layers, you can begin to add logs one by one. There are various log placement methods you can use, such as the teepee and the lean-to, to help you build up a large but contained fire. Add dry logs periodically to keep the fire alive.

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4. Know What You Can Burn

If you would like to use your bonfire for controlled burns, make sure you’re not igniting anything that could pollute the air or cause your fire to grow out of control. Some burned substances can introduce toxins to the air and cause serious health problems. Never burn trash, including cardboard, plastic, yard waste, particleboard, magazines or any wood that has been painted or treated. Old, untreated scrap wood that has been properly broken down may be OK to burn in your bonfire. In general, stick to natural wood to feed the fire.

5. Keep Safety in Mind

Safety should be a prime consideration when dealing with any raging fire, especially in your backyard. Pay attention to the wind, as high winds can cause fires to spread rapidly. Of course, don’t start any fires during a drought or when the air is particularly dry. Lastly, always make sure to keep your kids and pets away from the flame at all times!

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Bonfires are a great way to light up the night and provide warmth when temps are nippy, but they are inherently dangerous. Naturally, fire is hot and prone to spreading, so it’s simply not something you want to take lightly. But, when right, a good bonfire and a rolling cooler filled with your favorite beverages can make for a fantastic evening with family and friends.

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