Smoky bonfire in Dittisham

The smoke you see from a garden bonfire is billions of little particles of un-burnt material. There will also be other harmful compounds released by a bonfire like this including high levels of dioxins. An open fire will typically produce 90% more particulate emissions (smoke) than a new wood burning stove. A garden bonfire, burning wet fuel, will be off the scale in comparison.

The reasons are twofold; for an efficient fire you need a high temperature and you need oxygen. Wet fuel does not allow the temperature in the fire to rise because all the heat is being used to evaporate the water, and when you burn fuel in a pile on the ground air does not get mixed in properly, so the combustion is incomplete – it is an “air-starved” way of burning things. Which is why you get billowing clouds of smoke from bonfires when burning fresh garden waste. 

Billowing clouds of smoke is harmful at the best of times, but right now we are in the midst of a covid-19 health pandemic. Millions of us have had to drastically change the way we live, mainly to protect those who are at higher risk. Billions of our public funds are being used in this effort. There are huge impacts on the mental health of adults and children, many businesses will be wondering if they can stay afloat at all, whilst our care services and support networks are doing their utmost – we are all of us paying a high cost.

Covid-19 seems to largely be a respiratory disease. Those with existing conditions such as asthma are at higher risk, and looking at the statistics published by the government it is easy to see that the highest mortality rates are among our elders – which we have many of in this parish. So anything which adds stress to our health, especially respiratory health, is to be avoided.

Deciding to burn wet garden waste is not only generally to be avoided, but right now it feels like it is ignoring all of these huge sacrifices that we are collectively making, and is likely increasing the risk posed by covid-19. There is growing evidence that air pollution worsens coronavirus 


If I can’t burn it, what should I do with it?

  • Take it to the Council recycling centre near Kingsbridge – we all collectively pay for recycling services so that, for example, we do not have to end up burning garden waste. Make use of them, they are open.
  • Use your brown bin if there’s space. You can fill it up every 2 weeks of course.
  • Create habitat from the waste – hedgehogs and many other animals love a place of refuge so another option is to make a deliberate habitat pile in your garden and see what new life that attracts. A very tidy garden is not a rich bio-diverse habitat. Here are some pointers from the RHS. There are also some good articles in the Parish magazine from “The Untidy Gardener”.
  • Use a chipper for more bulky material and then use it as a mulch or compost it.
  • If a contractor is doing the work for you then they must dispose of it in the proper manner – which would mean leaving it on site either as-is or chipped, or paying to dispose of it in the proper manner – not burning it.
  • If you are going to burn it regardless then make sure it is dry – which means stacking it so that the air and sun can get to it with some type of cover to keep the rain off. Drying can take months so bear that in mind. Also bear in mind that a bonfire pile is an excellent habitat for many animals like hedgehogs so at the very least once it’s dry move it before you burn it so you don’t also burn any animals inside. As I say you should avoid burning it in the first place.


What if bonfires are causing a nuisance?

I’d advocate talking first – observing distancing of course. If you notice a neighbour having one of these bonfires go and have a word with them. Or send them a letter or phone them if you have their number.

The person having these bonfires may well not be aware of the level of concern and harm they are causing, nor how many people they are effecting. This more personal approach may also have a more lasting impact than a letter from the authorities, plus these bonfires tend to be intermittent so it can tend to be hard for an officer to come out when one is actually happening, especially when Council services are under particular strain at the moment.

So again I’d advocate for talking, and talking early before an annoyance turns to anger. If you also talk with other residents about this then that can help to spread awareness and a few more people getting in touch is more powerful than just one. Remember – the person doing this may well not be fully aware of the impact they are having. 

If that fails you can contact Environmental Health at South Hams District Council. They also reiterate the message that you should try talking with the person causing the nuisance first.

Here is a handy Bonfire Guide – again the Environment Agency advocate talking with the person having the bonfires first. There is also some good information in there on best practice.

Smoky bonfire