September is here. School is back in full swing, college students have settled into their dorms, Labor Day has passed (signifying the unofficial kickoff to Fall), and I can almost smell the Pumpkin Spiced Lattes in the air. Though it still feels like summer here in the south, the cooler weather is sure to move in before we know it, and along with it will come a host of Fall events, especially at colleges and universities around the country, like Homecoming and bonfires.

Speaking of bonfires, one of our university clients recently contacted us regarding their annual Halloween bonfire, and with September being Campus Fire Safety Month, I thought this might be a good time to talk about campus bonfires.

This particular university reached out to us to ask about the potential of creating a bigger bonfire this year – one that would be 27 times bigger than their normal bonfire. The university goes through the proper channels each year to get a permit for their bonfire and have kept everything under control throughout the years to build their 5 x 5 x 5-ft fire. This year, there was a request to figure out how to build a bigger fire:  15 x 15 x 15-ft (bringing their normal 125-ft3 fire to a whopping 3,375-ft3 fire).

I put the question out to our fire protection engineers to start a roundtable discussion about how the university could build this bigger fire safely. While it was fun to kick around some thoughts, our minds kept coming back to, “Is bigger really better?” As fire protection engineers, we understand the allure of a big fire, after all, there’s a little bit of pyro in each of us. But, in this case, it’s just not worth the risk and could be a disaster waiting to happen – like the tragic 1999 “Aggie Bonfire” at Texas A&M that claimed 14 lives and injured 27 others when the huge structure collapsed during its construction. So, we advised the university that the bigger fire was just a bad idea and urged them to not only reconsider, but to also consult with their local fire department.

We know there will be bonfires all around the country as the weather cools down and how much fun they can be. If you are building a bonfire, consider these safety tips:

  • Fire can spread easily – build the fire away from structures, vehicles, fences, and trees. Also, make sure there are no cables (like telephone wires) above the bonfire.
  • Do not allow flammable liquids at the bonfire.
  • Only burn dry material – damp material will cause more smoke.
  • Check weather conditions – if conditions are too dry or too windy it’s best to cancel or reschedule your bonfire.
  • Keep water, sand, and/or a fire extinguisher nearby to help extinguish flames in case of an emergency.
  • Once the bonfire has died down, spray the embers with water to stop it from reigniting.
  • Check the website of your local fire department/fire prevention bureau of additional safety tips. You may also find there are specific local ordinances that are applicable.

And, of course, use common sense – don’t leave the bonfire unattended; keep children and pets away from it, and keep a first aid kit nearby so if an injury does happen, supplies are available.