The first thing to consider in building a beach bonfire may have little to do with its size or the pleasure it produces. Two extremely important factors to bear in mind with bonfires on public ocean beaches are these: how to keep it under control and how to put it out safely and completely when it has served its purpose.
Thousands of people visit ocean shores every year in order to enjoy surf and sand and wind – and bonfires. Some bring seasoned firewood from home, while many depend on finding an adequate supply of driftwood with which to build a beach side fire. A surprising amount of sun-dried starter kindling awaits the industrious family armed with plastic bags for the gathering. Along many ocean beaches large pieces of dry driftwood, especially after heavy storms, strew the sand. Gathering driftwood for a fire accomplishes one thing for sure: it helps whet the appetite for the picnic fare.
To build a safe bonfire, locate the fire ten or more feet from the nearest shrubbery or grass. If the wind blows offshore, that is from the direction of the ocean, a tarp barrier staked upright to the ocean side of the fire will help prevent sparks flying into the grass. Though some find it tempting to do so, avoid locating the fire next to large pieces of driftwood, especially if they connect in any way with other driftwood. Getting these larger pieces of driftwood to blaze up may result in a fire difficult if not impossible to douse. If the driftwood does catch fire and partially burn, though doused properly, the likelihood of leaving a blackened scar behind remains probable.
Safe beach fires also depend in no small part on the construction of the fire pit itself. With a shovel or, in loose sand, using the hands, scoop out a cavity from one to two feet deep and three or four feet in diameter. (Hint: If you plan to cook food on a spit, make sure the skewer brought to the beach has sufficient length to span the fire pit.) A fairly deep fire pit serves three purposes: 1) The sides of the cavity help keep wind from blowing out the flames when starting the fire; 2) A good bed of hot coals, for roasting foil-wrapped potatoes, for instance, will last longer when kept confined; 3) The task of smothering the fire will prove easier at day’s end.
Keep the fire going with fairly small pieces of firewood from home or driftwood from the beach. A roaring fire with unnecessarily high, leaping flames works no better than a small fire but does increase the possibility of letting the fire get out of hand and spread elsewhere. A small fire, well contained, also requires less wood to keep going and, in the case of driftwood used as fuel, leaves driftwood along the beach for other visitors to share.
Finally, make sure to put the fire out before leaving. One or two buckets of water poured on burning wood ends and hot embers will douse the fire. To return the beach to its former appearance, pull sand back over the fire pit. The sand also will help smother out the fire, leaving it completely dead.