Campfire safety is one of the most important rules to follow when camping. Campfires are amongst the top contributors to woodland and forest fires in the United States. Almost 85% of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans. And because of it, wildlife is displaced and the natural environment is destroyed. Even nearby homeowners suffer because of just one spark.
According to the National Park Service (Wildfire Causes and Evacuations), irresponsibly left campfires impact areas for decades.
Annually, the U.S. spends approximately $3 billion dollars to fight forest fires. And as of recent, that figure rises as climate change and poor forestry management elongates the fire season.
The other forest fire culprits are burning of debris, equipment use and malfunctions, negligently discarded cigarettes, and intentional acts of arson. (*Source: 2000-2017 data based on Wildland Fire Management Information (WFMI) and U.S. Forest Service Research Data Archive).
And that’s why we’re writing this article. To help educate people about the dangers of why campfire discipline and preservation of our National Park and woodlands are so important.
Let’s see how we can be better stewards of the land by being more mindful of our campfires.
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Campfire Safety Tips to Help Prevent Forest Fires
Respect fire bans
Fire bans are put into place for good reason. Fire restrictions are put in place to reduce the risk of human-caused fires during times of high or extreme fire danger.
So, before starting any fire, ensure there are no local fire bans set in place. Pay attention to the warning signs posted near campgrounds and parks. If you’re camping in the backcountry, check with the Ranger to see if there are any fire bans you need to be aware of.
Be aware, if you do start a fire during a fire restriction on federal lands, according to the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture Fire Restrictions, you will be subject to steep penalties; a hefty fine, imprisonment or both.
Use existing fire rings
Always try to use existing fire rings provided they’re in a safe spot away from brush, trees, etc. If there is no fire ring, clear an ample perimeter of ground and gather enough large rocks to create a circular fire ring. Also, stack your firewood away from the fire; at least fifteen to twenty feet away is best.
And, after building your campfire, it’s imperative to contain and restrict the fire to inside the ring.
Clear your campfire perimeter
If there are no existing fire rings, scope out where you’re going to build your campfire; especially in the backcountry. Stay away from brush and woods lines and trees with low canopies. Remove all dry leaves, grass and twigs away from your fire ring area.
Also, be mindful of other campers who may be close to you. You don’t want burning embers to land on their tent or camper.
Keep your campfire small
When camping in the backcountry and even in campgrounds, keep your campfire small. Larger fires are hard to control. Don’t allow your campfire to rise higher than 18″.
Also, by keeping your campfire small will last longer because you’re not using up all of your firewood at one time.
Keep water nearby
Keeping water readily available near your campfire is an absolute must. Whether it’s a few buckets of water or an energized hose ready to spray, some sort of water source and quick action will help prevent the fire from spreading.
When it comes dousing your fire with water, never use a straight stream of water. That will only displace the coals and live embers. It may also cause sparks that may ignite nearby brush or trees.
So, only use the fog option on your water hose nozzle. Use slow, long sweeps. Keep the water on your campfire until there are no visibly hot coals left.
If water isn’t available, use dirt or sand that’s free of dried leaves or small kindling. Don’t simply kick a little sand or dirt on your fire and call it a night. Cover your campfire and coals completely using a camp shovel.
Then, gently spread the coals out with a poker, rake or your camp shovel. Keep adding sand or dirt until the campfire is completely out.
Whichever method you use to extinguish your campfire, stay with the campfire location for at least 15 minutes to insure the fire doesn’t reignite or spread.
Keep an eye on the wind
If it’s even a little breezy with winds over 5mph, it’s never a good idea to start a campfire to begin with. If after starting your fire or if it’s been burning for awhile and the wind picks up, douse the fire immediately and thoroughly.
If your fire sparks nearby brush, trees or ground cover and/or gets out of control, note your exact location and immediately call 911 if you have a signal.
If there is no cell service, send one of your campers to the nearest park ranger or campground host to report the fire.
Should you be camping alone or in the backcountry, using your GPS, note the exact location (latitude and longitude coordinates) of where the fire is located and immediately head to the Ranger Station.
Adult supervision always
Never leave a child alone with the campfire. Even if your older child or teen can tend the campfire, they are not equipped to handle the responsibility or emergency. Should a burning ember rise start another fire or if a younger child were to fall into the campfire, they lack the mental capacity to act responsively.
Even if your son or daughter may be the master campfire starter in Scouts, you still need to post an adult to monitor the fire. All it takes is one split second for a spark to start an unintended fire.
Keep children and pets at a safe distance from campfires
Instill in them that campfire safety is #1. Keep everyone in your camping party a safe distance from the campfire.
Make it a campfire safety rule to never allow children play around or stoke fires. Even if it means you have to constantly remind them. There should be absolutely no horse play or running, jumping, or shoving each other around an fire.
As well, keep pets a safe distance away from the campfire as well. It’s best to keep them on a short leash. First, to keep them away from the fire. But also, by keeping a short leash will help prevent other campers from tripping over the leash.
If your family wants to make s’mores, I highly recommend using marshmallow roasting sticks with longer handles. Always have an adult present to assist the little ones so they don’t get too close or torch their marshmallows.
Also, use a good quality pie iron to make your pudgie pies. Never allow your children to handle pie irons as they get extremely hot and will cause severe burns if touched.
Keep all flammables away from fire
Never use flammables such as charcoal lighter, gasoline, lighter fluid, bug torch oil, insect repellents, butane, to start your campfire. This includes any cooking oils or cooking fat.
Keep all flammables away from your campfire. Also, keep butane and propane canisters from cookstoves separate and far away from any fire source.
Flammables can combust quickly even from just the fumes. Be conscious of accidental drips and spills from flammable liquids. All it take is a single live ember to land on the ground where spillage occurred.
Burn only natural matter
Don’t throw any paper products like paper plates and bowls in the fire pit as they have plastic coating that emits toxic fumes when burned. Also, paper plates that may have residual meat fat or cooking oil will ignite quickly or cause a grease fire.
In other words, keep your fire pit simple; wood only. And equally important, never burn pressure treated wood as it has arsenic and other chemicals that are injected into the wood. Burning pressure treated wood emits extremely toxic chemicals into the air that will cause respiratory distress in both humans and wildlife.
And lastly, never toss in any cans, glass, plastic bottles or any foreign matter into the fire, period. Campfire pits are not trash cans.
Never relocate fire
Relocating a live fire is dangerous! For one, you run the risk of carelessly spreading the fire or causing a wildland fire. But also, there’s high possibility of burning yourself or those in your camping party. Once your campfire is lit, leave it where it is.
Never dump your coals or burning logs in the woods
You should never dispose of or dump any coals into the woods; even if you think they are completely extinguished. Only dispose of your grill or campfire coals into proper receptacles (if provided). Or wait until the coals are completely cold before leaving your campsite.
Always use good judgement around the campfire
We all know that camping and alcohol use is like a dysfunctional marriage. Even slight alcohol use may distort sound judgement and slow reaction time.
Think of it this way. When you’re going out drinking with your friends, you always have a designated driver who exhibits rational thinking and response. The same goes for when you go camping; and especially when campfires are present.
If you are alone or even in a small group, you’d be better off hanging out by your tent or camper with your camping lantern. There are plenty of other campfire alternatives or activity that don’t involve fire.
Another option is using a propane fire pit instead. That way, you can extinguish your fire with just a turn of the knob and shutting off the propane when calling it a night.
Never walk away from your campfire
Never leave a campfire unattended. No matter how small, never turn your back on or walk away from your bonfire; not even to just run into your tent or RV to fetch the marshmallows, grab a beverage or hit the bathroom. An adult should always be present to tend and monitor your campfire!
Never leave your campsite with a live fire
It’s imperative you never leave your campsite if your fire is still smoldering. It means your campfire is still ignited. You should use any or all of the methods mentioned earlier to extinguish your campfire completely before vacating your campsite or camping area.
Again, it bears repeating, never leave your campsite until you know for sure those coals are completely cool.
Campfire safety wrap up
We all love to enjoy the outdoors. And campfires are the hub of an enjoyable camping experience. But if we’re careless or irresponsible with bonfires, the result is catastrophic to the environment, wildlife and even people’s homes and businesses.
Instill in your children what these campfire safety rules are. Remind them each time you take them camping that campfires come with responsibility. As adults, we should all be responsible stewards of the land and environment around us. And though campfires are an enjoyable part of camping, in a split second, they can wreak devastation, injury and even death. Be sensible. Let’s all help prevent forest fires.
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