All About Bonfires

All About Bonfires

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Bonfires have been a part of human history since our early ancestors roamed Africa. In 2012, a team of scientists found ancient ash and charred bone in a cave in the Kalahari Desert, suggesting that Homo erectus used fire as early as one million years ago.

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Bonfires were an important part of Samhain, a Gaelic festival during which cattle were brought down from their summer pastures and slaughtered for winter provisions. The bones of the animals were thrown into the banefire or bone-fire. This word evolved into the term we know today.

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In the United States' early years, fireworks were just one part of the Fourth of July tradition. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, volunteers collected and assembled materials for a massive bonfire. Up to eight thousand barrels were used to create structures up to 40 tiers high. At midnight, the structure was lit and the night "turned into the morning of a new year of liberty."

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Every year on an assigned day in August, Europeans light hundreds of bonfires across the Alps. The chain of lights symbolizes their unity in preserving the environmental and cultural heritage of the mountains. The tradition was inspired by a custom in the Middle Ages when "high fires" served as a warning of imminent danger. 

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On Christmas Eve, bonfires are lit along the levees of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. They are said to light the way for Papa Noel as he makes his way from town to town in his pirogue (a Cajun canoe) pulled by eight alligators.

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On January 5, or Epiphany's Eve, communities in Northeast Italy celebrate Panevin. During the festivities, a straw witch dressed in old clothes is burned in a bonfire. The witch symbolizes the past and the direction of the smoke from the fire reveals whether the new year will hold good or bad fortune. 

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On the winter solstice, people across Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttrakhand and Jammu in India celebrate the midwinter festival Lohri. The bonfire ceremony is an integral part of the festivities as it symbolizes the return of longer days. At sunset, a bonfire is lit in the main square of each village and people toss sesame seeds, gur and candy into the flames. They sit, sing and dance around the fire until it dies out. 

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On November 5, 1605, a group of Catholic conspirators placed explosives under Britain's House of Lords in an attempt to destroy the structure and kill King James I. A man named Guy Fawkes was charged to guard the explosives, however he was caught, tortured and executed along with his collaborators. That night, Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires in celebration of the foiled plot. Every year since, people across Britain have built bonfires and burned an effigy of Fawkes to commemorate the day.

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The tallest and largest bonfire was built and burned by SKF mladi Bostanj on April 30, 2007, in Bostanj, Slovenia. It measured more than 142 feet high with a volume of 60,589 cubic feet. While we're not sure that it beat out some of the early American bonfires, it's the largest since Guinness began compiling records in 1954.

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Before heading out, make sure to ask your local forest or National Park Service representative if you'll need a fire permit. This will help you avoid hefty fines.

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You don't need to be out in the woods to enjoy s'mores, sing-alongs and other fun bonfire activities. In fact, it's surprisingly simple to make your own fire pit. This video will show you how.

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While you should use existing fire rings when they are available, you may sometimes need to build your own site. Make sure the spot you choose is level and has no flammable material within a five-foot diameter. The area should be clear of overhanging branches, brush or dry grass and should never be at the base of a hill, as escaped fires can move uphill quickly. Once you're found an appropriate location, clear a circle 10 feet wide down to the dirt using a shovel. Next, dig a pit six inches deep and two feet across in the center of the circle and ring it with rocks and dirt. This is where you should build the fire.

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Traditional bonfires are made with fuel, tinder and kindling. Small twigs, dry leaves or dry needles can be used as tinder, and sticks smaller than one inch around count as kindling. Fuel comprises any larger piece of wood. There are several popular techniques to build a bonfire. You can try them out and decide which way you prefer.

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If you don't plan on cooking, you can add different chemicals to your campfire to produce different colored flames. Here is a list of the chemicals you can add and the effect they will produce:

  • Copper Chloride or Calcium Chloride: Blue flames
  • Borax: Light green flames
  • Copper Sulfate: Green flames
  • Strontium Chloride: Red flames
  • Potassium Chloride: Purple flames
  • Sodium Chloride (table salt): Orange flames
  • Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom salt): White flames

You can purchase these items on Amazon and either sprinkle them on the fire for quick bursts of color or make wax paddies for more enduring effects. To make a paddy, melt old candle wax in a double boiler and put 1/4 inch of your desired chemical in a paper cup (Note: never mix the chemicals together. This will not produce different colors). Once the wax is melted, pour it into the cup and stir. When the mixture has cooled and solidified, simply peel away the cup. 

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Not only is it illegal to burn most waste products, but these items can also emit toxic fumes that are hazardous to your health.

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Before you start a bonfire, make sure to have a shovel and five to six gallons of water on hand to put it out. After drowning the fire, stir in dirt with the shovel. If the bonfire is truly extinguished, the ground should feel cool to the touch.

All About Bonfires