This post looks at fires, the value of fire in children’s play and learning, and the sometimes problematic attitudes and actions of the fire authorities. It starts with a personal anecdote. (Its timing on Bonfire Night is kind of coincidental, but kind of not.)
Last Saturday I went to the church at the top of my street, to help out with some cemetery clearance work. I am not a churchgoer, but as a local I wanted to do my bit. Plus I have a side interest in gathering firewood, and as it happened the previous weekend’s storm had taken down some large branches that I had my eye on.
The graveyard is in a forest setting. Over the years, it has become over-run with ivy, self-seeding trees, brambles and other invasive plants. The new vicar, Fr Paul Trathen, wants to make the space more inviting, to build the church’s connections with the community, and to allow some of the Victorian commemorative stonework to be better appreciated, without damaging the site’s conservation value.
So a volunteer team was pulled together, a clearance day organised, a bonfire started, and by around 1 pm it was burning and smoking nicely.
Not long after, a fire engine pulled up – blue lights and siren blazing – and the firemen told us that the fire had to be put out.
Here is a summary of the conversation that followed. (This is not a verbatim transcript, but is based on what the vicar told me immediately afterwards.)
Fireman: You need to put this fire out.
Vicar: Why do we need to put it out?
Fireman: We have had a call from a member of the public who had seen the smoke.
Vicar: The fire is not dangerous. It is under constant adult supervision. We have a full water bucket ready, and a mains water supply in this toilet block [about 3-4 metres away from the fire]. The fire is on a hard standing, and it is in a clearing.
Fireman: You still need to put the fire out.
Vicar: I have been trying for the last six weeks or more to get in touch with the London Fire Brigade to notify you of our plans to have a bonfire, to avoid this very situation. No-one answered my emails. There is no information or number to call on your website. We knew we would have large amounts of greenery to get rid of because of our clearance work. What are we supposed to do with it?
Fireman: You can drag it through to the forest floor and leave it there.
Vicar: How is anyone supposed to be able to organise a fire? What about bonfire night celebrations?
Fireman: We only allow organised fires.
Vicar: This is an organised fire. How are we supposed to organise a fire in future?
Fireman: London is a no fire zone. You cannot have a fire.
So the fire was extinguished, and the work had to stop.
Now, in the London Fire Brigade’s defence, bonfires can be a hazard, a danger, and a headache. What is more, during this summer’s heatwave, there were a few major (for London) grass fires in Epping Forest, just a few hundred yards from the church. But it still seems to me that the firemen’s response was disproportionate, to say the least. So far as I can see, we were following to the letter the London fire brigade’s own guidance on bonfires (which is pretty reasonable).
Of course, this could have been a one-off over-reaction. But my worry is that it may be part of a wider problem. I have heard similar stories from outdoor educators and adventure playground workers. Last month at a play conference on the Isle of Man, for instance, I was told of a very similar exchange: the gist of it was that a charity that wanted to include fire activities was banned by the fire service from doing this. (In fairness, I have also heard of fire authorities that take a more constructive approach.)
Fire activities have been an established part of outdoor learning since Baden Powell’s days, and this remains the case today – for instance in Forest School programmes. I know of a few adventure playgrounds in London – and even some nurseries – that have regular fires. Without exception, those involved speak powerfully about the value of fires: about how they help children to appreciate the power of the flame, and how they encourage children to take responsibility for their safety. They tell of children’s fascination with the process – which points to a deep connection with the most elemental of human need for warmth and food – and of the intense satisfaction children gain from mastering skills like using a fire steel. And they describe the unique ambience that only a group seated around a bonfire can create, and the special exchanges, experiences and conversations that arise as a result.
Yet I know that educators and playworkers who are thinking about introducing fire activities can face resistance – from managers, from insurers, from health and safety officials, and also, it appears from the fire service. My fear is that for whatever reason, some fire services are not willing to use their discretion or judgement – or to allow their officers to do this. Instead of taking a balanced approach – one that recognises the value and use of controlled fires – they are nervous about the very idea. When there is a call out, there is heavy pressure for any fire to be extinguished on the spot, no matter how well-managed.
As the statutory service that takes the lead on fire safety, the fire service’s views are rightly taken seriously. But are they taking the right approach? What is your experience – and do you have any advice about how to respond to their concerns? As ever, I would welcome your thoughts and comments.