The bonfire takes its name from the medieval bon-fire of animal bones. Bonfires have been a way of getting rid of domestic and garden waste for many years. However problems associated with bonfire smoke have increased and are the cause of many complaints.
Burning garden waste produces smoke - especially if that waste is green or damp. This will emit pollutants including carbon dioxide, particles and dioxins. Emissions from bonfires can have damaging health effects on asthmatics, bronchitis sufferers, people with heart conditions, children and the elderly.
Smoke, smuts and smell from bonfires prevents neighbours from enjoying their gardens, opening windows or hanging washing out and reduces visibility in the neighbourhood and on roads.
When and where can I have a bonfire?
It is a common misconception that there are specific byelaws prohibiting garden bonfires or specifying times they can be lit - there aren't! Occasionally a bonfire is the best practicable way to dispose of woody or diseased waste that cannot be composted and bonfires are used to mark traditional celebrations - especially November 5th. Ensure only dry garden waste is burnt, your bonfire should not cause a problem.
Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA), a statutory nuisance includes "smoke, fumes or gases emitted from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance" and exists when a bonfire is a regularly recurring problem and interferes substantially with nearby residents "wellbeing, comfort or enjoyment of their property". If a bonfire of industrial/commercial waste is emitting dark or black smoke it is dealt with under the Clean Air Act 1993 - this includes the burning of such material in your garden. Under the Act, it is illegal to dispose of waste that is not from your property on your property - for example from a workplace or neighbour and small tradesmen must not burn waste from site at home.
Apart from unpleasantness caused by smoke, flying ash and the smell, bonfires can be a serious health hazard by producing toxic fumes if materials such as plastics, paint, foam or rubber are burned. They can also be a fire danger to fences and sheds during dry weather.
How do I complain about a bonfire?
If you are bothered by smoke, try contacting the person responsible and explaining the problem caused to you. You might feel awkward but they may not be aware of the distress they are causing and it will hopefully make them more considerate in the future.
If this fails, contact Environmental Protection, who will investigate your complaint and can, if necessary, issue a notice under EPA. The Act also allows you to take private action in the magistrates' court. However, if the fire is a one-off, it may be difficult to prove a nuisance, similarly, if you are troubled by bonfires at different neighbours.
Finally, under the Highways Act 1980, anyone lighting a fire and allowing smoke to drift across a road faces a fine if it endangers traffic. Contact the Police if this is the case.
Barbecues can also cause smoke and odour problems - especially if you use lighter fuel. If the weather is still and sunny, your barbecue will contribute to photochemical smog (this is formed in the summer by the action of sunlight on pollutants).
What's the Alternative?
Alternative methods for disposing of garden and kitchen waste include composting and recycling which are far less damaging to the environment. Advice on composting is available from Warwickshire County Council and from gardening organisations. The following provide information leaflets on composting, for which there is a small charge:
Centre for Alternative Technology, Machynlleth, Powys SY20 9AZ Tel 01654 702400
Information Department, Garden Organic, Ryton Gardens, Coventry, CV8 3LG Tel 024 7630 3517
Household waste should certainly not be burnt. Many items can be reused or recycled and your Council provides bins for you to separate your waste and collect garden waste. Old furniture certainly shouldn't be burnt. Your Council provides a special collection service for a fee and you should contact StreetScene on 01789 260616.
- Only burn dry material
- Never burn household rubbish, rubber tyres or anything containing plastic, foam or paint
- Avoid lighting a fire in unsuitable weather conditions - smoke hangs in the air on damp, still days. If it is too windy, smoke blow into neighbours' gardens and windows and across roads
- Avoid burning when air pollution levels in your area are high or very high. You can check air quality on 0800 556677 or at www.airquality.co.uk
- Position fires away from buildings, garden hedges, sheds and trees.
- Never leave a fire unattended. Have plenty of water ready.
- Put bonfires out with either water or soil. Never leave a fire to smoulder.
- Remember, heaps of garden waste provide havens for small animals such as hedgehogs, frogs, toads and mice, so please check before putting waste on a bonfire.