Playing with Fire

The 17-year old girl stared in fascination at the flames.

“I’ve never seen a fire like this before,” she told me.

This was last week, when I was a thousand kilometers north of here, accompanying a group of Montreal kids on a high school exchange: we were toasting marshmallows over a few burning logs and a flaming wooden crate a camp site near  the border of Labrador.

What do you mean? I asked.

“We never had money for summer camp,” she answered with a shrug, and it occurred to me that this young woman may have never actually been in the presence of an open flame.

Imagine growing up without ever seeing a flame bigger than a lighter spark, birthday candles, maybe a fireplace, or whatever you can pyro in the school yard. I’ve always maintained that the city is a good place for children, but this seems like a small tragedy.

Project for Public Spaces has published an article on How and Why to have Public Campfires which describes how fire has a particularly strong power to act as social glue:

“There also seems to be an ancient etiquette common to all cultures, that allows strangers to approach a fire…many people, when they draw near a campfire, seem to feel that they can talk a little to the strangers near them, perhaps about some overlapping memories of other campfires.”

The author speaks from 7 years of experience hosting campfires in Dufferin Park in Toronto. While an open fire in a public park might seem like risky business, the Friends of Dufferin Park highlight that public campfires actually increase park safety:

“You’ll be helping with park oversight while you’re at the fire … A city is a place of many strangers, and it can be scary – a dark park even more so. But a campfire is a reassuring circle of light and activity.”

So where are the friendly neighbourhood campfires in Montreal?

The local fire code limits bonfires (“feux de joie“) to 3m in height and diameter, which frankly sounds more than reasonable, and requires them to be a minimum of 75m from buildings and 200 m from high-risk industrial sites. A permit is also required.

According to the permits office in Verdun, reached through 311, it is possible to get a permit for a cooking fire on a private property (“have a pot of potatoes on hand”, I was advised). However, I have a hunch that when it came down to it, the 75m rule would preclude most backyard burns. Then I was shuffled to the recreation department where I was informed that it was not possible to get a permit to hold a fire in the public park “because of the precedent that it would set.”

There is a touch of hope: I was told that if I wanted to organize a major event involving a bonfire, for instance for Saint-Jean-Baptiste, I could apply to the borough council.

What do you think? Is it foolish to try and play with fire in the city? Or is tending the flames a fundamental part of the human experience?


  1. We had backyard campfires in Edmonton all the time (early-mid 2000s), around 3 blocks from Whyte Ave (kind of the St-Laurent of Edmonton)

  2. We used to have the odd backyard fire in our yard in winnipeg when I was young as well. (90s)I would agree that having a communal fire in a city park would be a great neighbourhood experience with proper supervision. I think that there is some inherent truth to the fact that people will find it easier to meet and greet around a bonfire.

  3. Some friends and I had a bonfire on Mount Royal a little over a year ago. (Yes, yes, it’s illegal, but still.) We had mulled wine, cooked some food and met a guy who had spent the summer living on the mountain.

  4. I went to a bonfire in that big empty lot (it has an unofficial name but I can’t remember it) behind those grey industrial buildings in Mile End and it was quite pleasant. Illegal I’m sure but nobody bothered us.

  5. Halifax, where I used to live, is a city where the rural/urban divide is blurred, easily bridged – we’d have campfires down in Point Pleasant Park, ride our bikes to the lakes (Dartmouth is the ‘City of Lakes’ – housing projects on the water), grow veggies in alleys. 

    I know, I know – Toronto, where I now live, has fires in Dufferin Grove, you can bike to the Island and go for a swim, and everyone is growing vegetables everywhere. 

    But here in Toronto, these feel like truly urban pursuits. They never cross that line: you (almost) never feel like you’re in the country.

    In Halifax, maybe because it’s so small, maybe because of its long history, maybe because of its Peripheral nature, the city-country-divide is ever-present and (almost) always welcome. Especially in summer-swim-season.

  6. The advent of the propane BBQ was really a tragedy for the fire pit. Though I understand the desire of cities to minimize the risk associated with having fires I also think that considering the powerful role fire has played in human history we really should have access to it, even in urban areas.

    The burn barrels that are put out during the High Lights fesival are a great example of how communal public fires can be safe and inviting. I’d like to see them in public spaces throughout the year. It would be a start at least.

  7. Great post Alanah. And very à propos… The “big empty lot” in the Mile End? Are you talking about the Champ des Possibles? We had our Assemblée Générale on wednesday and the question of such bonfire in urban settings was raised. We are looking into it.

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