Help me make the bonfire go smoothly.
April 24, 2006 1:51 PM   Subscribe

Please help me make the bonfire go smoothly and my birthday not suck.

The facts:
- Occasion: I am turning 27, I figure this is a cheap and casual way to get everyone together
- Location: San Diego, CA
- Guests: ~20

Can you hope me with these questions:
- Best SD beach for bonfire?
- How much wood do I need to make it last from sunset to whenever they make you leave? (I think it's midnight)
- Easy bonfire food to bring/make?
- Fun activities/themes? (I don't know anyone with a guitar and anyway not really into singing Kumbaya)
- Any other suggestions/advice?

Just in case the bonfire thing falls through, if anyone has suggestions for a fun restaurant that can accommodate this many guests for <$20 a head, that would be appreciated as well because is just pititiful with its recommendations. (no Buca di Bepo though, thanks)
posted by like_neon to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
S'Mores with shots of peppermint schnapps. But not too much, or you'll try to kiss that cute girl whose boyfriend was also at the party and narrowly avoid a fight and then later on you'll end up puking. Not that I know from personal experience or anything.
posted by plinth at 1:59 PM on April 24, 2006

Bonfire parties I've attended typically include:

-shotgun & empty liquor bottles
-far more wood than you think you need (and you'll still fall short)
-old furniture to sacrifice in the bonfire
-some wonk smelts a block of metal by placing stolen cutlery under where the bonfire is going to be
- some chemistry wonk brings all kinds of salts to make different parts of the fire different colours
- cheap beer in large amounts
posted by PurplePorpoise at 2:03 PM on April 24, 2006

The amount of wood you need is purely dependent on how big you want the fire to be, and how long you want it to last. The bonfires as-shown-on-TV would probably take a third of a cord of wood to sustain for 8+ hours. But a fire that big is so hot that it's uncomfortable to be anywhere near... the heat from a pillar of flame is intense.

You'd probably be happier with a spread-out fire that's big enough to let your whole party gather around, rather than a very tall one, which will burn intensely and chew through wood like crazy.

I'd guess that if you filled the back of a station wagon with a layer of eight-inch-thick wood, that would probably make a very nice 20-person fire for an evening. If you doubled up on that, it would give you a big safety margin, or would let you make a much bigger fire. This assumes reasonably good, slow-burning wood, like oak... if you use trash wood like pine, you'll need way more. Don't forget you need matches, tinder (very tiny pieces), kindling (small pieces) and medium-sized sticks to get the fire going. Once it's happily roaring with big pieces, you can sustain it easily with more big pieces.

Build your initial fire like a teepee... lean together very small pieces, and then gradually build up with bigger pieces, using the same pattern. Leave a hole for your match to reach the center. If you build it right, you should need only one match.

Marshmallows and hotdogs are good fire foods. If you can let a section of the fire burn down to coals, you can use that part for cooking.

Foil cooking is very good for open fires. Slice potatoes and carrots onto a piece of foil, season, and then drop a piece of chicken on top. Wrap them all up very tightly in foil... it needs to be airtight, preferably two or three layers. Toss it into the fire near the edge, and leave it for about an hour. Fish it out, unwrap it, and use the foil as a plate. Mmmm.

You can do all kinds of cool stuff with foil... that's just one example.

As far as games go... that's not my thing, maybe someone else will chime in. :)
posted by Malor at 2:07 PM on April 24, 2006

As far as food goes, Malor is right on the money with suggestions for foil dinners, hot dogs, and s'mores.

As far as the fire goes:
I agree with previous posters on the amount of wood, but I'd recommend a chemical accellerant. (NOT GASOLINE!!!) Unless you're absolutely sure of the dryness of your wood, a rip-roaring fire can be hard to start. I've had several years of experience safely starting chemically-treated fires. I find that the best accellerant is Coleman fuel (white gas), mixed with lamp oil. Get a paper cup (NOT styrofoam) and fill it with lamp oil. Place your tinder/kindling around it. About five minutes before you light the fire, pour the Coleman fuel all over everything (be VERY careful not to splash on your clothes, hands, etc.) To light the fire, you can rig up any number of devices to light it from a safe distance, the most simple being a match stuck on the end of a long stick. Because you poured the easily-ignitable liquid (white gas) on five minutes ago, it gets absorbed into the wood, and you shouldn't have any problems with flash fires/explosions.

If you want it to look cool, you can rig up electrical ignition systems with a model rocket engine, or create a "flaming arrow" by way of a magnesium road flare sent down a hill on a wire. Make sure you test anything fancy before the big event.

Even if you chose to not use chemical accellerants, it is imperative to have water on hand to fight the fire if it gets out of control.
posted by fvox13 at 2:18 PM on April 24, 2006

Mission Beach has good firepits, and as a bonus is fairly close to costco when you realize you forgot something at the last minute. Also, if you have a boat available, it can get close to the beach for boarding/disembarking.

Pallets (usually available for free* if you lurk around the back of some stores) make for good fires and are easily transported.
As a bonus, they last a long time (so long as you use one at a time, and don't pile them all on at once.
To light, grab one of those "BBQ in a bag" jobs, light it, let it burn down, cook your food, then throw a pallet on it.
No muss, no fuss.

* Free means there is a pile of broken ones with a sign, don't steal perfectly good pallets. When in doubt, ask.
posted by madajb at 2:24 PM on April 24, 2006

Do NOT use gasoline as a starter (I'm speaking from experience here). Use diesel instead. Gasoline will mix readily with air and produce a cloud of low-lying fumes around your bonfire. You will walk up to your woodpile, throw a match on it to start it, and do a frenzied dance as flames lick around your ankles. That's if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, you've bent over or knelt down to light some tinder under the pile.

As Malor noted, the heat from a large bonfire is intense. If you intend to roast marshmallows or somesuch, think campfire.
posted by forrest at 2:25 PM on April 24, 2006

Curses on you, fvox13! The one time I don't preview...
posted by forrest at 2:26 PM on April 24, 2006

Bah, chemical accelerants are for wimps. I don't think it's a good idea to use that kind of chemical on a food fire anyway... if ALL you're using it for is heat, that's fine, but if you're planning to cook with it, don't use chemicals.

Getting a big fire going is really easy if you have a good amount of tinder and kindling. Practice in your backyard a bit if you haven't built fires before. A properly built fire should never require more than one match to start.
posted by Malor at 2:27 PM on April 24, 2006

Pallets (usually available for free* if you lurk around the back of some stores) make for good fires and are easily transported.

Pallets are often made with pressure-treated wood, which produces chemical-laced smoke (particularly arsenic), and they leave behind nails and staples. This is especially an issue if you aren't using a firepit. Supposedly there is some danger of flying red-hot nails/staples during the fire, as well (but I don't know how real this is). The burning of pallets often seems to be a significant factor in local gov'ts deciding that bonfires should be allowed on a beach at all.
posted by advil at 2:48 PM on April 24, 2006

(Yes, I agree that gasoline should be nowhere near a bonfire - typically for these reasons, and indeed, a good bonfire can be started without accelerants - it's just that gasoline was present at most of the bonfires that I've attended.

Also, the shotgun probably doesn't belong on that list, either. Furniture can contain all kinds of plastic material - which would be irresponsible to ignite.

Just to round things out - good beer is far preferable to cheep beer in any quantity.)
posted by PurplePorpoise at 3:22 PM on April 24, 2006

advil -
If I recall right, all fires on San Diego beaches have to be in a firepit.
Good call on the fumes, I suppose I should have mentioned that's why I suggest cooking over the charcoal then throwing the pallets on afterwards.
posted by madajb at 3:40 PM on April 24, 2006

Response by poster: Ahhh there is such an art to bonfires! Thanks for the advice.

Yes, fires in SD beaches have to be in pits, but I'm not sure which beaches have pits. I remember last year I went to one in PB and there were NONE for miles in PB so we sat in the dark and ate sandy s'mores. not. fun. So if anyone knows the streets off of where there are pits for sure, that would be great!!

Thanks also for the food suggestions. Hot tinfoil meals sound pretty good!
posted by like_neon at 4:05 PM on April 24, 2006

More fire talk: straight gas is too explosive, yet diesel can be a real bitch to keep lit. But mix them together, and you've got a winner-- no explosions, but good ignition. A typical diesel:straight gas mix is 3:1, which is what most wildfire fighters use. I like 3:2, but I light a bunch of bonfires. Get the ratio right, and don't accidently invert it or you're looking at some nasty burns.

If it's damp out, I'll also through a duraflame log in the middle just to get the coals going. Even if you're using dry wood, be sure to have start with enough kindling to get a quick bed of coals.

I love bonfires. We try to put them close to water for a late-night swim, so bring towels and swimwear if you're not into the skinny-dipping thing.

Bonfires are tough to cook on, unless it's s'mores or charred hotdogs. I always bring a small BBQ pit and variety of chicken, beef, veggie burgers and shrimp to throw on grill every hour or so to keep the food flowing.
posted by F Mackenzie at 4:15 PM on April 24, 2006

I could be totally wrong, but I really thought the beaches shut the party down at 8pm.
posted by I Love Tacos at 4:47 PM on April 24, 2006

Are you familiar with Coronado? The beach runs west from the Hotel Del Coronado. The fire rings are in an area next to the navy base so there is very little traffic during the evening and night. The actual area around the rings is huge, more so than most other S.D. beaches. Another plus is that you won't have any bums and/or drunk college kids trying to ply their way into your beer etc.

Remember, no glass. Happy b-day!
posted by snsranch at 4:52 PM on April 24, 2006

Response by poster: I Love Tacos: I think I read on some SD website that bonfires can go until midnight but alcohol is not allowed after 8pm.

In that sense, you are correct, it seems like they do shut the party down at 8.

Thanks snsranch, I didn't even think of Coronado. I'll pass it around as a possibility. (and thanks for the bday wishes!)
posted by like_neon at 5:07 PM on April 24, 2006

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