A bonfire is a large but controlled outdoor fire, used either for informal disposal of burnable waste material or as part of a celebration. If materials are dry and burn quickly creating little smoke, then there is usually little problem, providing the smoke does not blow directly towards occupied premises.
Damp vegetation, however, does not burn well as it produces large volumes of smoke and smoulders for long periods of time. Burning this type of waste often causes complaints and so it should be disposed of in other ways.
Bonfires and the Law
There is no law against having bonfires, though it is an offence for the smoke, or the smell of the smoke, to cause a nuisance. Smoke from garden bonfires in a residential area can seriously affect the residential amenity and enjoyment of other spaces. It also contribute to local air pollution levels and, in some locations, reduce visibility on nearby roads.
Most issues generated by bonfires are addressed under nuisance legislation. Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA), a statutory nuisance includes “smoke, fumes or gases emitted from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance.” In practice a fire should not substantially interfere with a neighbours’ well-being, comfort or enjoyment of their property.
In order for a bonfire to be considered a nuisance, there has to be evidence about the frequency of the bonfires, their duration, the locality and how the bonfire directly affects the complainant's enjoyment of their land. We have a duty to act and take enforcement action where it can be shown that a statutory nuisance exists.
There are also two other instances where smoke from bonfires constitute offences:
- When a bonfire is emitting dark smoke (due to the burn of industrial and/or commercial and/or domestic waste), then this is an offence which is dealt with under the Clean Air Act 1993. This includes the burning of such material in your garden, under section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA).
- When smoke from a bonfire drifts onto a public highway. If this happens you should contact the Police, who may decide to take action against you. Under the Highways Act 1980, anyone lighting a fire and allowing smoke to drift across a road faces a fine if it endangers traffic.
Our policy on bonfires is to seek the co-operation of residents in avoiding nuisance from bonfires by asking that garden waste and other material is composted or recycled.
We offer garden waste collections as a convenient option.
If there is no alternative to having a bonfire then the burning should be carried out when the weather conditions are suitable.
If you intend to have a bonfire, you are advised to follow these guidelines:
- Let your neighbours know - Check to see if any neighbours have washing out or windows open. A fire could lead to their clothes or home smelling of smoke and prevent them from enjoying their garden. This could lead to unnecessary neighbour disputes. You must not allow the smoke to cause a nuisance to neighbours.
- Consider the size of your bonfire - Can you burn the material in stages or could you use a small garden incinerator? If you reduce the size of the fire it could lead to a more controllable fire with less smoke.
- Only burn clean, dry vegetation - Damp or green material will create lots of smoke that could drift onto your neighbour’s property or the highway. Never burn household rubbish, rubber tyres, or anything containing plastic, foam or paint.
- Check your environment - Is there a tree above the fire? Is it near a fence or building? Fires should be set in a cleared area, well away from anything that could catch fire.
- Never use flammable materials - You should never use oil, petrol, methylated spirits or any other type of flammable material to light a fire or to encourage it, as you could cause harm to yourself and to the environment.
- Avoid lighting a fire in unsuitable weather conditions - smoke hangs in the air on damp, still days and in the evening. If it is windy, smoke may be blown into neighbours’ gardens and across roads.
- Check current air pollution levels - Avoid burning when air pollution in your area is high or very high. This information is included in weather forecasts or on the UK Air Quality website
- Be prepared to Stop - If your neighbour does raise a concern over smoke coming onto their property, you should take immediate action to resolve this. You may need to extinguish the fire. You should reconsider other options to dispose of your garden waste. Never leave a fire unattended or leave it to smoulder, put it out.
Report a problem
If the fire looks out of control call 999.
It's always a good idea to try and resolve problems informally, by politely letting your neighbour know if a bonfire has been causing a nuisance. It is possible that they are unaware of the problem and they may be more considerate when planning a bonfire in the future. If this approach fails, you can report the problem to us using our online form.
What happens after a report
All bonfire cases are dealt on a case by case basis. We will inform the person responsible that a complaint has been made and provide advice on how to avoid further problems.
If we determine from the evidence that the reported problem constitutes a statutory nuisance, we may issue a Community Protection Warning in the first instance as warning.
Should we then receive further evidence that the bonfires are still occurring we may issue an abatement notice under S80 of the EPA 1990 or a full Community Protection Notice under the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Police Act 2014.
An abatement notice requires that any action causing the nuisance must be prohibited, and must not take place in future.
Failure to comply with an abatement notice is a criminal offence and can result in a prosecution via a Magistrates' Court, with a fine of up to £5,000 imposed on those responsible.