How to Have a Safe Bonfire Night in 2020

Remember, remember your safety precautions this fifth of November. Bonfire Night is once again upon us; a 413 year old celebration of a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England. The Observance of 5th November Act 1605 was drafted, which called for a public and annual thanksgiving for the failure of the plot. Although the law was repealed by Parliament on 25 March 1859, we have continued to celebrate this date, which has become synonymous with not only bonfires, but firework displays.

In a “normal” year, by far the safest and most enjoyable way to celebrate Bonfire Night is to attend an organised event. The number of professional and community-organised displays has increased, possibly for the reason that attendees can be safe in the knowledge that trained, insured professionals will razzle and dazzle them and their loved ones. You are also guaranteed to see larger fireworks that are not available to the general public.

As Bonfire Night 2020 is now upon us, Hawkins investigators Dr Richard J Fletcher of the Birmingham Office and Mr Wayne Manton of the Bristol Office have considered the implications of the Pandemic on this year’s celebrations. No one wants to diminish the thrill we experience every year as we see and feel the fireworks exploding. However, with the second Lockdown coming into force on 5 November, there will be no public displays so it seems almost certain that many more will look to their garden as the venue for this year’s festivities. Before running out to do some last-minute shopping, please consider the following:

It probably goes without saying that fireworks can be dangerous and can present a very real risk of either injury or fire if not handled with respect. The number of injuries each year caused by fireworks is relatively small, but that means nothing if it is you or your child who is injured. Hawkins Investigator Wayne Manton says, “Although the act of igniting an explosive for display purposes might well be inherently risky, when done safely accidents are incredibly rare.” Hawkins has investigated numerous incidents of fires caused by fireworks, whether started intentional or accidentally as well as the incidents where someone has been injured.

Purchase any fireworks from a registered shop, where they will have ensured the fireworks are legal. Legal fireworks are identified by the CE marking. Illegal fireworks are more likely to operate in unpredictable ways presenting a significant risk to everyone. Do not buy fireworks from people selling them online (e.g. eBay) or from the rear of a van.

When choosing the fireworks, be aware of the size of your garden and whether you can ensure you maintain the minimum safety distances. The instructions on every firework state the minimum safety distance, which will be 8, 15 or 25 m. The labels of 8 and 15 m fireworks will have F1 or F2 on them. If you only have a small garden, first consider if it is even safe to use F1 fireworks at all and then be certain that you can ensure the minimum safety distances of whatever fireworks you purchase. No matter how tempting the allure of the “biggest firework” in the shop is (i.e. one that will require 25 m and will have F3 on the label), lighting it in a small garden put yourself and others at risk. It could even be inferred as reckless and negligent behaviour to light a firework in a space where you were unable to ensure the minimum safety distance.

In addition, also remember what goes up must come down, especially rocket sticks. Your responsibly for where the debris lands is not removed the moment you light the fuse.

It is illegal to set off fireworks in a public space, e.g. the street, a park or recreation ground or near a road.

Before you light the first firework, please remember to consider your neighbours. Tell them in advance as to when you intend to have the display and, importantly, keep to that time. Some Councils are proposing a “Rocket O’Clock” where everyone lights their fireworks together at the same time.

The ‘Firework Code’, a set of guidelines relating to the safe use of fireworks, has been in the public domain for many years. It gives the following advice:

  • Plan your firework display to make it safe and enjoyable, and ensure it finishes before 11pm (unless on the 5th November when the curfew is midnight)
  • Only buy fireworks which carry the CE mark, keep them in a closed box and use them one at a time
  • Read the instructions on the label, using a torch if necessary, to understand each effect
  • Only use fireworks that you can ensure meet the minimum safety distances
  • Ensure, where indicated, that the firework is correctly supported and cannot fall over, e.g. bury it in the ground or a bucket of sand
  • Light the firework at arm's length with a taper or portfire and stand well back, so no parts of your body are over the top of the firework
  • Keep naked flames, including cigarettes, away from fireworks
  • Never return to a firework once it has been lit
  • Never put fireworks in pockets and never throw them
  • Direct any rocket fireworks well away from spectators - rockets will fly into the wind so consider the wind’s direction before using them
  • Never use an accelerant (e.g. petrol) on a bonfire
  • Make sure that the fire is out and surroundings are made safe before leaving
  • Always supervise children around fireworks
  • Keep pets safely indoors

Beyond this guidance, there are also legal requirements that must be considered:

  • Category F1 to F3 fireworks (i.e. those sold in shops to the general public) can only be purchased by people 18 years or older. It is illegal for the public to possess or use F4 fireworks.
  • Fireworks cannot be set off between 11pm and 7am, except on:
    • Bonfire Night, when the cut off is midnight
    • New Year’s Eve, Diwali and Chinese New Year, when the cut off is 1:00 am
  • You can only buy fireworks (including sparklers) from registered sellers for private use on these dates:
    • 15 October to 10 November
    • 26 to 31 December
    • 3 days before Diwali or Chinese New Year.
    • At other times you can only buy fireworks from licensed shops.
  • A breach of these laws could warrant a fine of up to £5,000 and imprisonment for up to 6 months.

Richard Fletcher states, “Fireworks represent a raw example of chemistry in action. The deflagration of the gunpowder combined with metal salts, and indeed a good deal of artistry, creates the wonderful spectacle of sound, light and colour that captivates us.”

If you choose to have a home display this year, please take the appropriate precautions, and get your family’s “oohs” and “ahhs” at the ready.

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