Should we ban the open fire?

The Great Smog of 1952, London

As environmental consciousness rises across the world, inefficient open fires face a ban, which is already enforced in areas of France and America.


Monet – London in the fog

It was a particularly cold and snowy December in 1952, and Londoners were burning large amounts of coal to keep warm. A downward draft, known as an anticyclone, forced the chimney smoke, and smoke from nearby factories, to linger in the air forming a dirty and corrosive fog. As it thickened on the night of December 5, nobody was expecting what happened next.

Visibility dropped to a few metres. It was so poor that people couldn’t see their feet; football matches were cancelled as the teams couldn’t see the end of the pitch and citizens commuted with facemasks in a futile attempt to protect their lungs.


At least 4,000 people died. The smog was so toxic cows choked to death at Smithfield, and travel was severely disrupted, with policemen directing traffic with flares just to be seen. Each day 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds were released into the atmosphere. It finally cleared on December 9 after a week of misery.

The Great Smog – 1952

The Great Smog of 1952 was an environmental catastrophe on an enormous scale and the damage was long lasting. Whilst it was one of the worst instances, this wasn’t the first time London had been shrouded in smog: the middle ages saw Queen Eleanor fruitlessly attempt to ban the burning of coal, and the smog worsened during the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. However this time, it looked as though London had learned its lesson.

The Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 banned the emissions of black smoke and made the public and businesses burn smokeless fuels. Now we have come a long way since the great smog, but as the west wakes up to the reality of climate change and seeks to become more environmentally responsible, should we ban the open fire altogether?  At best, open fires are around 20% efficient, with most of the heat being lost up the chimney, a long with a whole host of particulate matter.

San Francisco’s Bay Area has recently announced plans to phase out old fashioned open fires and have the homeowner replace it with a more efficient device. In Paris, a ban on open fires came into effect at the beginning of 2015. The European Union is concerned about emissions and it looks as though the UK is on course for a ban of a similar nature.

The open fire, source of the controversy

If an open fire ban is on the cards, what is left for those who want to bring the fire indoors? After all, burning wood isn’t necessarily bad for the environment, after all wood is a renewable source of energy and burning it is an easy way to reduce your energy consumption and dependency on the grid. A wood burning stove can be up to 80% efficient, with controlled air flow the modern wood burner is a clean burning miracle of engineering, a far cry from the open fire.


Additionally, there are already smoke controlled areas in place, where stoves and wooburners have to be ‘Approved Exempt’ or ‘DEFRA Approved.’ These are stoves that have passed tests to confirm that they are capable of burning an unauthorised or inherently smoky solid fuel without emitting smoke.

If wood is still too ‘dirty’ for you, quality of the electric fireplace has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. Take a look at the Dimplex Optimyst range and to see how you can get your own smouldering fire, complete with smoke-effect, yet with zero emissions (the smoke-effect is actually an incandescent mist and light effect).

Gas fires are brilliantly efficient and cost effective. Real flames but without the emissions, gas has helped the fireplace to become a stylish component in interior design. Flueless gas stoves are the latest innovation in this mode of heating, using a catalytic converter to capture all the particulate emissions instead of sending them up into the atmosphere. These flueless gas stoves have all the emissions of an electric heater, that is to say, none at all!

A Planika Bio-fire

The absolute pinnacle of modern clean-burning fire technology has to be the bio-fire. Renewable bio-ethanol burns to produce water and a small amount of carbon dioxide (later to be recaptured by the plants being grown to produce more bioethanol). This is arguably the most environmentally responsible (not to mention the most affordable) way to bring the fire indoors.

A common argument I’ve seen on the internet while researching this article, in opposition to a ban, is ‘cars have a greater environmental impact, why not ban those instead of my open fire?’

In a world where the number of cars on the road is increasing, surely it is necessary for everyone to do their bit. Nearly every industry has either succeeded or attempted to clean up their act environmentally, be it through cutting their carbon footprint, recycling or reducing the number of miles a product has to travel. Now is the time we did our bit.  In my introduction, the story of the Great Smog of 1952 wasn’t some anecdote designed to kill a bit of space. It was a recent, real-life warning of what happens if we don’t take care of the air we breathe.

Government legislation banning the use of open fires in the UK may or may not come into effect in the near future, but why not walk willingly into the cleaner air by upgrading your open fire (which hasn’t really changed in concept since the caveman, I might add) and make your home all the more environmentally friendly. How’s that for a warm feeling?

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