Updated: Jan 10
This is a hard one to write. Not because I don’t know what I do, not even because I don’t think about safety. This is hard because I don’t want to lead anybody astray on something important, but I DO want to be real with what folks ACTUALLY do. We all know we shouldn’t leave candles burning unattended, but even without magical practice, folks light candles in the bathroom and walk away all the time. It happens in real life. My thought here is to give you all actual things that can minimize risk for how we do things in the real world. Sure, we can talk about what’s ideal, but let’s have the conversation with what’s actually going to happen in mind as well.
Some of this is absolutely going to be things that you already know. That’s ok, I’m hoping that everyone will take one or 2 things from this. The one time I don’t say something, will be the one thing I needed to say. You are all able to think critically for yourselves. My only real “rule” here is to do your own research, so you’re aware of ALL of the risks of whatever it is you might do. A Risk Aware decision is ok, but you’ve got to know all the risks. For the love of everything, don’t count on me to give you all the risks, I darn well know I’ll miss something. Not on purpose of course, but we’re all human. There will be more of these safety series shortly, as they’re all important things to consider, but would tend to be EXTREMELY long.
This is probably the bit that will end up being longest. Certainly there’s no shortage of fire safety tips for us, most very good. It’s also probably the part that needs the most adaptation for how we’re actually going to do things. People get really fixed and rigid about the magical components of their candles and fire. There’s been a few other people that have covered portions of this. What I see here is a lot of discussion about what is ideal, and not a lot of discussion about what we actually do.
Outdoor fire safety
Many of us practice outdoors, at least in part. In many ways, this is a bit safer in some ways, with a little bit of experience with outdoor fire. There should be plenty of water available, and I do like the idea of having a fire blanket on hand. Biggest fire safety thing that I see outdoors is folks that want to get really back into nature, and so they hike out to a ritual spot, and can’t practically haul all that water out with them.
What to bring
I get you. Here’s what I would suggest. You can use dirt, especially damp dirt to smother a fire. Bring out a folding shovel with you, and dig an actual pit for the fire. If you’re the type that wants to be back to nature like that, know that a pit that your fire sits in also allows you to bury it when you’re done, which is ultimately better for the environment when you leave anyway. You don’t have to dig super deep, but you probably need more dirt than you think, as it’s mostly the loss of air that does the trick here.
I also suggest bringing a bit of water with you anyway. A circle of water a bit around your pit prevents flare ups, and having a small amount on hand can help with hot spots in conjunction with the dirt. I usually make a sort of portable altar, in a backpack that holds all the things I need for that more wild kind of ritual. Those usually aren’t all that pretty, but make sure I’ve got most everything I need.
Preparing the area
Outdoor rituals with fire, in the dark, in nature also have some pretty serious risks around uneven ground, holes, sticks and the like. When you find the area you’re going to be at, take the time to clear the ground around it. Light it well to prepare, flashlight isn’t that heavy. I’ll fill holes in the ground, smooth high spots, and of course make sure that sticks and such are clear of my circle area. Make sure it’s big enough for everyone that’s going to be with you to move around. When you’re close to home, you can do much of this in advance.
Watch the wind. Consider the directions the wind will blow. For the natural size of the fire, any flares from liquids, or blowing, on fire powders that you might be putting into the fire as part of your rituals. When you do flammable liquids, and let’s not pretend there’s not good ritual/magical reasons to do so, throw them all at once. The idea here is fire is faster than you. If you draw a stream from the fire back to you, it can and will follow you. All at once doesn’t give it a path back to you. Throwing flammable liquids on a fire isn’t exactly safety conscious. It’s the first of the things I kind of figure someone will do anyway.
When you’re close to home, you can just run a hose straight out to just outside your circle. Is it pretty? Not really, but it’s way easier than buckets. Consider placement of the altars and things, so you can reach the hose without tripping over the altar.
Indoor fire safety
This is a big one. We like our candles. We burn things, and coat those candles in all sorts of stuff that makes them act unpredictably. Making our altars look good is important to us. Covering them in all sorts of cloth, and other flammable stuff. We burn these candles on flammable wooden plates with sigils on them. We do all sorts of stuff that doesn’t exactly scream fire safety. I darn well know that. This is a good example of how knowing all the risks are important.
Incense and air quality
It’s very easy to overlook this. Burning things that create smoke also creates carbon monoxide. Even without smoke, you create some, so you don’t always see that. Frankly I know that small enclosed spaces and lots of incense is actually the point from time to time. Sometimes ritual practices in the old days actually manipulated this carbon monoxide level. This DID induce altered states, and was actually used to great effect. I still see practices that use smaller touches of this kind of thing. I’m not 100 percent opposed exactly, but I treat that as what it is. The application of a chemical to your biochemistry for ritual purposes. In other words, a drug. That’s the kind of thing you research and understand the risks of. In a decently large space with normal household ventilation, you’re likely ok. Unless you really pile it on, that is. Many people don’t even think about this.
You should probably also know that this CAN happen with candles and oil lamps and the like as well. Anything that burns or smolders really. It’s maybe not as big of a deal, as you’re unlikely to burn enough candles to matter, but it’s a consideration.
Altar cloths and drapes
It’s fairly common sense to watch the curtains, drapes, tapestries and such, if your candles are in any way close to the wall. We all have brains and can think through that. We don’t always think about what happens if our candles fall over. I get it, altar cloths are pretty. They’re probably my biggest fire safety pet peeve in magical practice. Altar cloths burn extremely easily. Carpets and candles don’t always mix either.
The altar itself
Most of us have mostly wooden tables, and those are what get turned into our altars. Really if you’re doing more normal candles, dressing lightly, and burning them in candle holders, you SHOULD be ok. That said, I’ll touch on the idea that it COULD be a risk. Glass panels, or even metal panels can be made for the tops of tables. You can get them custom engraved if you want, and that can provide a barrier just in case. If you insist on an altar cloth, I suggest a glass cover. It also happens to make it easier to clean. In any case, if you do a lot of candle work that you like to walk away from, I suggest a metal table. You’ll eventually have that table top heat up with something, and the metal won’t crack.
Actual fire safety gear
We all have one. That one smoke detector that doesn’t have a battery in it. Maybe you didn’t have the right battery, maybe it kept going off when you showered, or every time you cook, even if you didn’t burn anything. That doesn’t mean that we don’t run higher risks than most folks. You should probably fix that stuff.
Fire extinguishers are something interesting. We all should have one, but most people don’t. If you do happen to have one, when’s the last time you’ve tested it? Given how much open flame we use, consider it. I would also say we probably need to consider where we are when we’re using our altar. If you can’t get to the fire extinguisher, it doesn’t do you much good. I certainly wouldn’t want it mounted on the wall behind your altar, or under your altar. I’ve seen both.
Where to put your altar
OK, so if you haven’t caught on, I’m figuring you’ll leave candles burning “unattended” fairly often. There’s an easy way to counter some of that. Put the altar that you’ll burn your candles on, in the room you’re going to land in. I love having my altar in my living room anyway. It also keeps your altar as a central point in your life. I like that. Of course, not everyone is free to do that, but it’s great if you can. Of course, often we can just grab our candle as well, and keep it on the table next to us.
Other things to think about
Candle type matters! Taper candles are the worst kind of candle for anything that we might need some space from. They’re easy to knock over, and the way we dress them can sometimes lead to overdressing. When they’re overdressed, they can become a rather large flame, that can cause all sorts of problems. Glass enclosed candles are my favorite for long term burning. You can dress this right in the top, but be careful not to overdress. Overdressed glass enclosed candles can heat up, and I’ve had them crack or explode. I have a space set up that’s set up specifically for burning candles. Even then I mostly use glass enclosed candles. One note on this, I’ve seen folks put the glass enclosed candles in a bathtub of water, thinking that that would put out any fires that they might see. It will not. What happens here is as the flame gets below the level of the waterline, it cracks the glass, sometimes explosively, with the temperature difference.
I’m sure I didn’t get to nearly all of what needs to be said here. This one is one that now that it’s here, I’ll add things to it as I go along. This will be a constant work in progress. Given how important it is, I would also ask anyone reading this who thinks of anything that I didn’t cover to leave a comment down below. I’d rather we all be safe.