Put a lone human in front of the ocean, the sky or a fire and under they go, into a primal hypnosis. Some kind of brain-calm descends on the observer, a retina flash to a distant time.
For most of two million years we have used fire, delivering better nutrition and energy, allowing our brains to gradually get bigger. Otzi, the 5,000-year-old Iceman discovered in 1991 in the Italian Alps, carried fire with him as embers wrapped in maple leaves and stored in a birchbark box. His fire-starting kit contained iron pyrites, flint and tinder fungus. Until around 150 years ago, the household fire had to be kept alight in order to save tremendous work and time if it went out.
In winter, our family makes a ritual of a Sunday cookout in an old quarry in the woods, under the beech branch bronchioles. The food is shocking but the ceremony of the fire is the draw. In a place and time so soggy, cold and green, the thought of a wild fire seems thousands of miles away in arid lands. My mum had bonfires so regularly that she thought nothing of burning the cleared debris after gardening, even though we were in a rental villa in Greece for a week’s holiday. Indeed, the only time I have ever considered throwing my two cents into discussions online is on a neighbourhood app, when people are blathering on about washing lines when someone has a bonfire in their own backyard. It is the countryside, I think – are the cows too noisy and the roads too muddy?
But writing this piece has made me pause. Every time I have been asked to look at the topic of disposable barbecue fires, the news stories are fresh. Adur and Worthing Councils collected a bin containing a barbecue that ignited a blaze, destroying their £30,000 collection truck. The Woodland Trust has seen more than 30 fires across its sites in the last few years, the worst of which – on moorland near Bolton – caused more than £1 million of damage and wrecked nearly 600 hectares as it burned for 42 days. In the North Yorkshire countryside, firefighters spent five hours putting out a blaze caused by a disposable barbecue. Grassland in Great Ayton and property in Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Trearddur Bay all needed firefighters following the use of disposable barbecues. And these are just the first few results from this week. Not only is habitat damaged and the financial strain put upon essential services, but carbon stores are also released and won’t simply grow back next year.
There is clear dissention here between freedom, nanny-state behaviour, laws and expectations. Outdoor fire laws are in fact, relatively light-touch. Householders are free to have barbecues, firepits and bonfires on their own properties, even in Smoke Control Areas, unless you live in an area with specific by-laws that prevent fires. Driving garden waste to landfill sites may not be a greener alternative than the occasional bonfire, it seems. Guidance suggests you shouldn’t cause a nuisance to neighbours, who can ask the council to issue an abatement notice. And it is only decent to avoid adding smoke to environments where people have respiratory problems such as asthma. There are specific laws around smoke causing hazardous visibility on roads as well as burning substances that would generate dangerous fumes. But outside your own property, you cannot have a fire without permission from the landowner. Remember, too, that every beach is owned by someone, often councils, the National Trust or privately.
Do we legislate for stupidity or maintain personal freedom?
There are now calls for a ban on disposable barbecues because of the consequences of misuse. Elsewhere, money is being spent on educating people about how to dispose of them properly, submerging them in water first. Do we legislate for stupidity or maintain personal freedom? Ancient expectations carry modern responsibilities when brought forward to our big-brained present day.
Main image: Disposable barbecues cause untold damage to wildlife and the countryside, especially during times of drought/Credit: Getty