Fire bowls, bonfires, garden waste and health hazards

by Tom Turner @ 11:25 am January 10, 2013 -- Filed under: context-sensitive design,Garden and landscape products,Garden Design,garden history   

Garden bonfires are one of the pleasures of country life and, if the fire is in a bowl or pit, you can use garden waste instead of barbecue fuels. In towns, outdoor fires can be a nuisance but the advice given by municipal authorities is variable. Some say little more than ‘be considerate and don’t inhale the smoke’. Others, of which Milton Keynes is a notable example, appear to have been written by people suffering from severe asmatha, tinged with pyrophobia and boosted by bossiness. They have my sympathy – but not my support. Those who live in cold climates love fire.
But if I lived in Australia I would probably be violently opposed to garden fires. To look at the tourist photos, you would think all of Australia was always warm and always sunny. Yet I heard that Sydney had a temperature of 42°C two days ago and 21°C one day ago. Every aspect of garden design and management needs to be context-sensitive, more so than architecture or interior design.


  1. Strangely enough during a total fire ban day residential and designated camping ground bbq’s facilities are still allowed in NSW! The weather in Sydney has been extremely variable due to a range of metrological influences – the warm air generating the catastrophic fire danger is from the centre of Australia where there are temperature of over 50 degrees C.

    On the peri-urban fringe of Sydney in the Blue Mountains, not only are natural factors a concern, but there also seems to be a high incidence of arson, which is extremely troubling. In this context, as you say Tom, every aspect of garden design and management, as well as the architecture and interior design needs to be context sensitive.

    All contribute to the ability to fight fires and save property and lives if people chose to stay in place or are trapped in a location with a fire, because of arson or other incidents which cannot be easily anticipated.

    Comment by Christine — January 11, 2013 @ 2:56 am

  2. Fire is such an interesting thing. They think early humans mastered the use of fire about a million years ago. This surely makes it a ‘basic instinct’ and I can’t see that it is right to ban bonfires. They need to be managed so that people can enjoy them when it is OK and avoid them when it could cause harm. I wonder if, as with the prohibition of alcohol in the US, restrictions contribute to unmet desires – and arson. Sport seems to be a substitute for the competitive aggression associated with war. Do we need substitutes for outdoor fire – and is this why I like fire bowls? (and why other people like barbecues).

    Comment by Tom Turner — January 11, 2013 @ 4:59 am

  3. Yes, it does make some of the assumptions of the archaeologists about the necessity for stone hearths to represent deliberate fires seem misplaced. Fires (in all their forms, i.e. barbecues etc) are not usually banned, but they are on days when they would present an unacceptable risk of bushfire. So they are as you say managed so that people can enjoy them when it is OK and avoid them when it could cause harm to the environment, property and people.

    It is very sad to see the burnt wildlife and stock animals also. One poor farmer accidentally lit a fire by driving his tractor in his paddock! So the risk of creating sparks is very high.

    The arsonists however seem to be mostly children so it is unlikely that the ban on fires on particularly dangerous weather days is causing an unmet desire.

    Comment by Christine — January 12, 2013 @ 12:50 am

  4. I have read that only 1% of bushfire arsonists are caught. I can appreciate the difficulties in catching them but for this and other reasons I wonder if the figure of 50% of fires being the result of arson is established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. I do not have much knowledge of the situation and I can believe that today’s youth are more disaffected than their ninteenth century predecessors (when I believe bush fires were also prevalent) but I am always a little sceptical when the authorities attribute troubles to ‘a small minority of extremists’.

    Comment by Tom Turner — January 12, 2013 @ 5:39 am

  5. The authorities have been very good at catching the bushfire arsonists during this present bushfire season. The arsonists have been 1) children 2) an ex-volunteer fire fighter and 3) covering drug related activities.

    I am not sure whether the children could be characterised as disaffected, but they do come from a lower socio-economic area and therefore may have underlying issues that are being ventilated in this way.

    Comment by Christine — January 16, 2013 @ 1:17 am

  6. I am pleased to hear about them being caught and was also pleased to read about the academic attention being given to the motivation of the arsonists ”by lighting fires people seek a psycholigical benefit, something they perceive as lacking in themselves… to bring attention to themselves or to present as a hero by alerting the population and authorities to the fire’. Could there be any kind of parallel with the motivation which leads to school shootings – which I find very difficult to understand. The best I can do is to think that we are giving children too high an expectation of how wonderful life will be Then, when things don’t work out this way, there is an urge to ‘strike out’ and/or ‘do something dramatic’.

    Comment by Tom Turner — January 16, 2013 @ 4:46 am

  7. Yes, the motivation behind the arsons is important if they are to be addressed effectively and prevented in the future.

    The motive behind the recent Newtown massacre seems to been that his mother had intended to have him committed to a pscyhiatric institution. In the Taft massacre the motive was the student was being bullied.

    It seems that college and school shootings are different as the person responsible for the Kauhahoki School massacre had no specific grievance but stated he hated the human race in general.

    Australia has a good record of reforming convicts so if anything should be the best at solving criminal intent or causation and rehabilitating criminals or preventing crime.

    Comment by Christine — January 17, 2013 @ 3:56 am

  8. Apart from the particular circumstances, I think it is also appropriate to look for more-general explanations. Forest arson and shooting school-children seem to be modern crimes which are only found in certain countries – which, so far as I know, are also rich countries.
    Wiki has a list of countries by suicide rate and it would be interesting to have a list of countries classified by other crimes. Understanding problems is a necessary step towards their resolution. The lack of migraine in the concentration camps, for example, is still seen as a fact which needs to be explained.

    Comment by Tom Turner — January 17, 2013 @ 8:13 am

  9. Yes. Kidnapping and using children as soldiers and maritime piracy (this may also be affected by the dominant mode of State transport) seem to be crimes which seems to be only present, as far as I know, in poor countries. So, yes, it would be very interesting to see crimes listed in the developed and developing world. It may be that some behaviour which is criminal in some countries is not considered criminal in others. It is also interesting that suicide is gendered with males consistently having higher rates than females.

    The bush fires which are not deliberately lit seem to have been caused by dry lightening strikes. I am not sure if any studies differentiate between the frequency of these two causes, natural and human, and the extent of damage and loss occasioned, as well as the ability of fire fighters to fight the fires (ie it is possible to assume that fires caused by dry lightening strikes are in less accessible locations.)

    Comment by Christine — January 17, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

  10. Do you think there is any tendency at all for ‘the authorities’ to do a less than top quality job in preventing forest fires – and then blame arsonists? My distrust of authority has been encouraged by the failings of the UK police in the past 40 years – some of their failings are noted here Though not on the same scale it strikes me as the same sort of dishonesty as the corrupt regimes, as in Syria, which blame all the ‘trouble’ on ‘terrorists’.

    Comment by Tom Turner — January 18, 2013 @ 5:12 am

  11. Apparently dry lightning both results from and causes bush fires and is also associated with volcanic activity. [ ]

    Mostly it would seem authorities are re-active to issues that are before them. The toll on life would appear to be less than in previous seasons, however the property losses are still great. It is unclear to authorities at present whether they are dealing with a cyclical natural phenomenon or whether the the incidents are being exacerbated by climate change.

    It is interesting that although there are still a percentage of accidential lightings, mostly due to lack of care with camp fires, and possibly with authorities not been stricter about banning these earlier and more widely in hazardous conditions, there have been no reported fires lit by cigarettes (which in the past contributed significantly to road side fires). So progress is being made!

    Comment by Christine — January 22, 2013 @ 1:37 am

  12. In the UK there are constant problems with houses being built in the flood plains of rivers – and then being damaged by floods. The owners want public money to be spent on flood protection.
    Could it be that the residential property being built in the bush falls into a comparable category? ie would it be better to discourage building in fire-risk areas?

    Comment by Tom Turner — January 22, 2013 @ 8:48 am

  13. Partly this is true, for example, in Tuvalu they are building in the zone between the high and low tide and clearing beachside vegetation, while saying that they are being unindated by rising tides and affected by climate change – a more accurate description of the problem would be to recognise it is a problem of sustainable development.

    In the case of building on flood plains there is much the same scenario – a flood plain will inevitably flood periodically. The question is how do you respond to this? If the answer is ignore the inevitable and then complain when it happens, clearly this is less than sensible.
    However, if the answer is to look for designed or planned solutions which are holistic this is clearly more reasonable.

    In a bushfire risk zone – there is a risk of bushfire rather than an inevitability. However, clearly precautions should sensibly be taken to reduce this risk as much as possible.

    I am assuming that actions need to be taken at a range of levels – and in some instances public flood defences like the Thames Barrier are the right solution – and in other instances flood protection needs to be incorporated at the Borough and individual home level.

    Comment by Christine — January 23, 2013 @ 12:25 am

  14. Floodable buildings can and should be the norm in areas of high flood-risk, just as they build earthquake proof buildings in areas of high earthquake-risk.
    Could/should they put a degree of fire-resistence into buildings in high fire-risk? Every house in Switzerland has a cellar, in case of nuclear war. Could Australian houses have fire-proof cellars and concrete frames which are not TOO hard to re-clad? Or are there any more significant fire-proofing measures?

    Comment by Tom Turner — January 23, 2013 @ 4:47 am

  15. The first line of defence in fire proof design is to defend against ember attack. Embers often come in advance of a fire and will set a building alight with only a small spark or piece of smoldering vegetation.

    The second line of defence would be to assume that the building has caught alight and the occupants have stayed to defend their property and need to survive the fire.

    Comment by Christine — January 23, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

  16. The traditional Japanese defense against earthquakes was a high mud wall round the garden defending a light wooden structure. The light timber frame structure could collapse without doing too much damage and could be easily repaired. The mud wall defended against theives and also against the fires which follow earthquakes. Would mud walls help against bush fires?

    Comment by Tom Turner — January 24, 2013 @ 5:11 am

  17. It is interesting the Cyclone Oswald has been response for the weather leading to bushfire danger and now as an ex-cyclone is reponsible for widespread rain and flooding! The whole continent seems to have been affected by extreme weather resulting from one cyclone for well over a month!

    I am hoping that there are no earthquakes due – remembering the Christchurch earthquake and the Tsunami in Japan. I wonder whether people in New Zealand and Japan are feeling nervous as the weather events unfold in Australia?

    There doesn’t seem to be any logical connection between a cyclone and an earthquake.

    Comment by Christine — January 29, 2013 @ 3:18 am

  18. My misconception, based on tourist posters etc, that Australia had an almost perfectly-benign climate, is definitely taking a buffeting from Cyclone Oswald.

    Comment by Tom Turner — January 29, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

  19. Yes. In some places they have sayings like ‘perfect one day, and perfectly boring the next’ to describe the fact that the weather is not a topic of conversation because almost without exception the weather is perfect!

    That said, on rare occasions, the weather does something so unusual that it makes the news! At the present time the weather is doing something so exceptional that it is making the news worldwide. But although the weather is record breaking, our historical records are relatively short – sometimes no longer than 200 years.

    Of course the indigenous history is longer, but it has not been used, at least as far as I am aware to supplement the weather record since British settlement.

    Disregarding the devastation to life and property, watching the current weather patterns unfold is incredibly interesting from a scientific perspective because it is connected at such a macro scale (including sea temperature). Understanding all of these interconnections will be necessary to protect life and property in the future.

    Comment by Christine — January 31, 2013 @ 2:34 am

  20. Well, I was planning on making a fire pit in my garden, so that the girls could play out after school in winter. Not being in Australia, I was hoping I’d get away with it, without too much incident.

    Comment by Rachel — February 10, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment