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How safe are back garden bonfires and firework displays?

Back garden firework displays and bonfires are enjoyed up and down the country by millions each year, but are some of them just a little bit… reckless?

The crackling flames of a bonfire, brightly-coloured fireworks lighting up the night skies, crowds of awestruck onlookers wrapped in hats and gloves, clutching hot chocolates… there can definitely be something quite magical about Bonfire Night.

Provided it’s all taking place at an officially organised display, following strict health and safety regulations and observing a nice early curfew, that is.

Call me a grinch but, if I could, I’d rather see back garden bonfires and firework sales to the public banned.

The letter of the law

There’s currently no law in the UK that specifically bans bonfires in gardens, even in smoke-free zones.

But there are laws against causing a public or statutory nuisance, and some restrictions that people setting bonfires should be aware of.

The turning point in my attitude to Bonfire Night came at a party I attended a few years ago.

At this particular event, the hosts incredibly decided to douse the logs in petrol first to make sure the bonfire lit successfully.

A display of incompetence

Not only did it light, it caused a mini explosion which blew out the glass windows in the nearby shed and actually singed the hair and eyebrows of the front row of spectators.

Apparently not content with this level of threat to their guests’ lives, the hosts then upped the ante by throwing the fireworks which had failed on top of the raging flames.

Of course, being thrown into the fire made the fireworks catch light properly and shoot out into the sky in various directions, with one taking a very low trajectory over everyone’s heads, barely missing the wide open patio doors that led back into the house.

A house which, I later realised, would have been our only escape route if the bonfire had got out of control, because the garden was surrounded on all sides by a seven-foot fence.

Safety first

On top of that, consider all the usual arguments about the anti-social behaviour sometimes associated with fireworks and the effect all those loud bangs night after night have on our poor pets – something I know George has discussed on Which? Conversation before.

A friend of mine has to put her dog on diazepam every time Bonfire Night rolls round.

Yes, it can be expensive to go to an organised display, especially if you’re taking a family. But my advice is to suck it up and pay the money. Part of what you’re paying for is tighter health and safety regulations and medical staff on hand in case anything does go wrong.

Are you organising a firework display in your back garden this year? Do you take safety precautions? Or do you prefer going to an event organised by someone else?


The bangs and whistles begin around the end of October and carry on after November 5th. People seek the convenience of their own schedules to hold their parties when they feel like it and when the weather permits. When I was young, it was November 5th alone and strictly not afterwards or much before then. There were traditional village green bonfires, but many families just spent a pound or two and had a small fire in the garden with sparklers and adults letting off the other fireworks to the delight of the children. It was mostly for the children in our area and the grownups were there to make it happen. As life has become more sophisticated so has our expectation of Guy Fawkes Night/s/s/s. When every bang and whoosh cost a pound and major “shwam-bang-crackle -pop ,pop, pop” a tenner, there appears to be quite a bit of cash going up in smoke. I wouldn’t be a kill-joy and ban them, but I would like to see the celebrations narrowed to the weekend or couple of days around the fifth. There should be a difference between domestic fireworks and those for display purposes and the ability to purchase the latter made restrictive. The pops and bangs round here are sometimes very explosive. One could reflect on the background to these celebrations which has been all but removed from the event as our guys go up in flames. The current parliament might well benefit from a little well placed metaphoric gunpowder to help it sort out the squabbles and dissention within its ranks, but I digress!

hosts incredibly decided to douse the logs in petrol” “throwing the fireworks which had failed on top of the raging flames.“. This is like blaming cars and roads for the behaviour of drunk drivers. It is idiots like these hosts who should be banned.

No, I would not ban fireworks, anymore than pubs where you can choose to get drunk, climbing mountains or going boating when you might put rescue services at risk, the Isle of Man TT or any other risky activity that many people may choose to pursue. The vast majority have a lot of fun with home fireworks without incident; why spoil their enjoyment because some stupid people do stupid things?

In the Midlands and SE of England there are between 6 and 15 thundery days on average each year, far noisier and brighter than fireworks and something we all, animals included, have to come to terms with. We can’t ban those.

When some don’t like an activity they seem to think they have a right to impose their personal dislike on others, who clearly do enjoy it. Their choice is simple; don’t have your fireworks at home, don’t go to a private fireworks party, avoid stupid people, go down the pub and hope no one bans the devil drink.

I am with Malcolm on this. No public spectacle or organised fireworks party can compare with the home-made fun and enjoyment of a family and neighbours get-together round the bonfire. Obviously people need to be responsible and careful and protect children from harm, but through their work most people are much more safety-aware than used to be the case and if people follow the instructions on the fireworks no harm will be done.

Many years ago I was worried about my then neighbours who tended to be a little bit flamboyant with their back-garden displays and discharge massive shells with extremely loud reports; I used to wonder where they would land so always kept the garden hose handy, fitted to the outside tap, and charged with water. I am glad I did on one occasion because they managed to set fire to the wooden fence between our gardens because their bonfire got too lively. They got a bit of a soaking but the fence was saved.

I love fireworks, but having seen many of the finest and most spectacular displays in the word it would seem somewhat pointless having our own display. And it’s worth differentiating between the two separate forms of entertainment: the bonfire and the fireworks. The bonfire is wonderful, providing there are no morons using petrol (apologies to morons everywhere) but the fireworks are a different matter. The problem with fireworks is their ubiquity. In a city you simply can’t escape them. And the high pitched explosives do seem to upset a lot of our canine companions.

We had fireworks and bonfires when we were children, but nothing very grand and I don’t recall anyone being injured. Nowadays I go to a public display run by the Lions or the Rotary Club. It’s not much more than a mile walk, so no need to worry about finding a parking space. The bonfires are smaller than in the past and probably built on the day, so there is little chance of someone starting the bonfire prematurely or hedgehogs being trapped. There is an even nearer display on the playing fields, which is usually held the night before. Most people seem to go to one or both of the public displays rather than having their own fireworks.

Not everyone does behave responsibly with fireworks and bonfires and this is a busy time for the emergency services. I do have considerable sympathy for Kate Martin. In my early 20s I met a young man that had lost an eye and required considerable plastic surgery after an accident with fireworks. I don’t know if it would be worth having photographs of injuries on boxes of fireworks, as has been suggested recently: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-46071940

Phil says:
5 November 2018

According to your link 4,500 people ended up in A&E last year as a result of firework injuries. In 1996 there were 1,530; a number Nigel Griffiths, the then Consumer Affairs Minister, described as being

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Grinch – is a way of saying spoilsport. Perhaps the statistics that we hear each year should include how many millions attended events or had their own event and were not injured.

Is it right that we educate people to be hands of everything unless it is “official”? Are we just reacting to alarmist calls. Anyway perhaps we can have data rather than anecdotes.

Please note I have not bought fireworks for decades as I see it as burning money for very momentary pleasure. It would help if fireworks were controlled to precise days and periods when they may be used for the benefit of all peace loving folk.

A few very hefty fines reported could do wonders.

Phil says:
5 November 2018

Many fireworks are a lot more powerful than the ones around when we were children. Not far from here a guy had his head blown off by a “mortar”, an incident which led to them being restricted to professional use only but they and other illegal imports can still be bought. Every year we see them being sold from the backs of cars and vans parked in lay-bys.

As someone who’s spent most evenings over the past fortnight lying on the floor with my OH trying to comfort a terrified 14 year old cat I think it’s time fireworks were restricted to professional displays.

I was helping out with a back garden display last year, running around in the dark lighting the fireworks, and only really clocked it was pretty unsafe midway through lighting a rocket. A few of the rockets fell over and could easily have cause a nasty burn if they’d hit anyone (including me standing right above them). Definitely prefer a good bonfire: a lot more manageable and actually enjoyable — Back garden firework displays are always a bit… underwhelming, I think.

They are a bit underwhelming for adults, I agree, Oscar, but at a family gathering young children enjoy the friendly atmosphere, the absence of big crowds of strangers and the more terrifying explosions – unless the neighbours have splashed out on intercontinental ballistic missiles. They can also easily be taken indoors if it gets cold or they are tired. With the right selection of traditional, more gentle, fireworks providing brilliant coloured effects and softer bangs they can have a night to remember and will sleep soundly without feeling scared. As they grow older they can progress to the big events with the coordinated and choreographed set pieces, but let’s not deny them the thrills of watching their family’s own rocket taking off for who knows where.

Good point John!

John said unless the neighbours have splashed out on intercontinental ballistic missiles. They can also easily be taken indoors if it gets cold or they are tired.

We tried that, but they marked the ceiling.

@JohnWard ‘Let’s not deny them the thrills of watching their family’s own rocket taking off for who knows where’ — reminded me actually of those paper lanterns you can buy and release into the sky; those must be fun for kids; but obviously carry their own risks…

Last year at a wedding, in the French countryside, at the end of a long evening paper lanterns were launched into a very dark and clear sky. I had some trepidation about where they might land (no bad news the next day!) but they made a spectacular sight.

To be ultra safe, what about about a ‘drone swarm’ instead of fireworks or paper lanterns…?


Under the old BS rules some fireworks were classed as being safe at 5 metres, the new (phased in over several years ) CE rules have a minimum safe distance of 8 metres – that is you should have spectators over 26 feet away, plenty of modern gardens are less than that length, in both system the next grade had a safety distance of 25 metres ie, 82 feet! A lot of the larger shop bought fireworks particularly the single ignition barrages require this as a safe distance.
My concern is that a lot of the selection boxes contain both types, the boxes and the shops that sell them (particularly supermarkets ) often do not state the safe distances so the general public are left to assume that if they are legal to sell they must be safe to use.
I would like the law to be tightened so that the safe distance is always displayed for all fireworks.
I used to help out (and was trained ) with professional displays so I know how dangerous and how much fun fireworks can be.

Thanks for your comment, Howard. It seems that fireworks are no longer for the amusement and pleasure of children but adult show-off things with maximum noise and shock. Shame.

I agree with you on the need for clear warnings and instructions on safe operating distances. As you say, many are completely unsuitable for the average back garden.

As a child in the 50’s/60’s Dad built my brother me a bonfire each year and we had a few fireworks, Catherine wheels, roman candles, sparklers and 1 rocket – no bangers or jumping jacks – Mum’s rules.
They were let off between 7pm & 7.30pm so as not to be too much of a nuisance to the neighbours & I was required to “knock” all the neighbours to let them know so that pets could be kept safe & windows closed so that the smell of smoke did not get into the curtains.
How times have changed!
It would seem that the noisier the better is the norm and last year fireworks were still being let off at 3am.
Nowadays fireworks are not just let off around bonfire night but through out the year. I am not surprised that there are people who wish they were restricted to public displays.

Please could somebody tell me how families afford these commercial sized fireworks, some of which cost £50 to £100 each?

“There is a curfew on the use of adult fireworks between 11pm and 7am, except on;

Bonfire night (when the curfew is between 12midnight and 7am);
New Years Eve (when the curfew is between 1am and 7am);
Chinese New Year (when the curfew is between 1am and 7am);
Diwali night (when the curfew is between 1am and 7am).

People will spend a lot on a party; fireworks are no different. If they have the money. they can spend it as they wish.

Jumping crackers and penny bangers were a lot of fun in my young days, except some were misused. The difference then was that fireworks were generally let off on November 5th, so everyone know what to expect. A 5/- box of Standard Fireworks was quite a treat.

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In answer to your final question – a lot of people have highly-paid jobs, few demands on their pockets, a propensity to save, an avoidance of costly habits, and other forms of access to money. I don’t care how they blow their dosh so long as it doesn’t compete with me, and £100 fireworks are as good as any other pleasure – I just hope they don’t let one off near me. This is how austerity bights, of course: only one monster mortar this year.

Many people don’t find £100 a lot of money, and are happy to spend it for 15 minutes of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. It’s really a matter of context. Four of us recently popped into a favourite eating place for lunch and there was no change from £100.00. We spent more than £150 on our last grocery delivery (but then – the Bailey’s was on offer…) and just keeping the old motor yacht in the marina would cost that per week, if we didn’t own the marina. And don’t get me started on the cost of keeping the jet serviced.

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Interestingly, he’s also had a huge display installed as he floor of the lounge in the aircraft, which shows images of the Earth beneath. To novitiates it presumably appears as though there’s no floor in the aircraft.

Some people spend a small fortune on their computers, hi-fi, phones, holidays, parties, …………. It’s “disposable income”. Fortunately we can choose what we do with our spare money, if we are fortunate in having some.

However, it can take training to extract money from an unwilling wallet. Having been brought up in relatively impecunious circumstances after the war, when we had real austerity (you don’t know what austerity is these days) I have been very careful in allocating my dosh. But as life ticks by it becomes a little easier, and rewarding. Particularly when it benefits others as well.