Who doesn’t love a bonfire? Sitting on stumps around a blazing, crackling fire with friends, enjoying a beer or a mug of hot, spiced wine, and then as it burns down to coals, roasting meats, oysters, ears of corn, potatoes, marshmallows? Good times!
Of course, I’m such a pyro I don’t even need the festivities. I just want to get my brushpiles cleaned up. But I hate the smell of lighter fluid. It is a chemical pollutant and I have eaten more than my share of charred meat infused with its noxious odor. No more. If you can’t start your fires with a bow drill, or flint and steel, at least use a match, tinder, and kindling.
So I’m assuming you have wood to dispose of. If this is about a party bonfire, it seems wasteful to go buy nicely cut and split firewood. You should be working on creating a pile of wood that will not otherwise be useful- brush, dead branches, old furniture, garden trimmings, etc. If you are doing this over time it is too much trouble to worry about the construction of the pile, except that if it gets too big it will be too hot to get close to. My cousin builds his with a bulldozer and whole trees. His fires are spectacular yearly events. We could never have them if we had nearby neighbors. Which brings me to a point I hate to mention.
Make sure there aren’t local laws that you will be violating. Make sure you don’t have nervous neighbors who will call the law on you. Make sure you are above all things careful that your fire is under control and not able to reach something you don’t want burned up, such as a house or truck. And don’t imagine nothing will happen. Story: as a young bride I moved into a ground floor apartment in Jersey City (I know, I know). I went out to clean up the yard and started to burn my leaf pile, as I had done all my life. Within 15 minutes a firetruck pulled up, giant New Jersey firemen hopped into my back yard, scornfully hosed down my little leaf pile, and left with hardly a backward glance. Embarrassing. ‘Nother story: Once I was burning brush out in the field and it got into the hedgerow. It happened because I was getting overly enthusiastic about cleaning up leaves on the edge of the hedgerow. It caught in the dead catbriars and flew up into a tree with a huge rush of flame. Fortunately the tree was green and the vines quickly burnt out, but that taught me. Fire is nothing to fool with. I keep a hose or at least a bucket of water nearby, and a leaf rake. The leaf rake is for beating out flames that try to go where they shouldn’t. It works very well and I have never had any more problems.
Burn when the ground is wet. Be careful about wind. A little breeze is ok if your pile is well isolated from flammable materials, but if the wind catches your fire and tosses sparks onto a roof you’ll really wish you had waited for a better day.
Know your prevailing wind. That means, where does it blow from most of the time? Bear that in mind for safety, smoke, and starting the fire. Mine blows from the west, so I start my fire on the west side of the pile.
Arrange materials. Gather small twigs, large twigs, stick, and short limbs you can move around easily. Lay them within reach.
Gather some tinder- dead goldenrod heads are really easy to start, and some dead grass and leaves. Set two small logs in a v shape, open towards you and the prevailing wind. Pile the tinder on the bottom, in the V, then leaves and grass. Break up the smallest twigs and lay them criss cross over the leaves, just behind them. This is so as soon as the leaves catch fire the flames will blow back and rise up into the twigs. So behind those stack larger twigs criss cross, larger and so on, like a lopsided teepee, or that famous building in Sydney. Sheltering the flame from the wind with your body, light a match and put it in under the tinder, out of reach of wind. If there is no wind you may need to blow gently to encourage the fire. As the materials catch make sure the fire is feeding through the successively larger sticks you have put on. Rearrange and feed the fire as it grows. The bigger it is, the thicker wood it can eat, like a baby. Pull a few pieces from your pile on top of it as it grows. Eventually you will need to get back as it licks over the V and catches your main pile.
Or you can just save your junk mail in a paper sack and set that on fire to windward of your brushpile. That works pretty well.
As the pile burns you will need to toss in outer pieces. Use a rake, heavy leather gloves, and boots. A ball cap and safety glasses are also not a bad idea if you are concerned about cinders in your eyes and hair.
When your pile is burned down, you can use the coals for cooking, toasting marshmallows, or starting a new fire in the morning, but don’t just forget about it. Rake the outside to the center and be sure there is no way the fire can get out of control while you are not watching. The best way is to drench it with water, and if you are in an area where the ground is flammable because it contains a lot of humus, as in a forested area, it’s mandatory. Fire can travel underground. My grandmother put out a cigarette on the ground in Canada once, and in the morning she found a tiny spiral of smoke rising from the ground 6 feet away. If she hadn’t noticed that and drenched it, the whole island could have gone up in flames, including the houses.
Fire is a wonderful and primally satisfying thing. I love to spend a winter day cleaning up debris and feeding it into the flames. But I never let myself forget what would happen if it got out of control. Be careful.