Our Outdoors: Campfire Season Safety

By Nick Simonson

While controlled burns and even natural fires can serve a purpose in regenerating habitat this time of year, unintended blazes sparked by careless use of fire can cause unwanted damage to property and potentially threaten the lives of both wildlife and people.  Knowing how to properly manage a campfire, being aware of the fire danger index and obeying a few simple safety rules can help keep things from getting out of control this time of year as the last of the snow melts and things begin to dry up.

Campfire Control

For creating a campfire on personal real estate, like the edge of a beach or in the back yard, consider the following tips from the National Forest Service.  A fire pit should be dug into the ground slightly and surrounded by a circle of bricks or stones or contained in a metal ring.  The fire pit should be located a good distance away from any structures like barns, garages and houses, and when camping at least 15 feet away from a tent.  Be aware of prevailing wind direction and take note of any nearby trees, shrubs, dry grasses or other potential fuel sources, and aim to keep sparks and ash from drifting toward them.  Check campsite rules and ordinances in cities and townships regarding campfires, before setting to work on a dedicated firepit that can be used over and over, or one that will just be used for a weekend of camping.

At the end of the night, the campfire remains a responsibility.  Extinguishing it permanently is key in preventing it from flaring up when no one is around and potentially causing problems.  This is done by putting out all embers with a good soaking of water.  Ideally, most of the wood will have been burnt down to cinders, but if not, make sure all fuel sources get a good soaking.  If necessary, add dirt or sand to the fire and stir it in with the water to help smother any remaining hot embers.  When in doubt, add more water.  There should be no steam or smoke rising from a completely extinguished fire.

Index It

Whether at home or camping, fishing or hunting, being aware of the fire danger index at any time of year can help prevent the unintentional ignition of large-scale wildfires.  This five-color index easily conveys the overall dryness of the environment in a given area, such as a county or forest, and can be looked up online with just about every state agency across the U. S.  The conditions set out by the fire danger index can also trigger statutory burning restrictions and the requirement of burning permits in some states, so be aware of those while traveling and camping throughout the region with a quick internet search or a call ahead to a campground, park or forest office.

When the fire danger index is high, also be aware of small actions which can set off large fires in dry scenarios.  Items as tiny as a cigarette butt tossed from a car window, a bottle rocket, embers blown in the breeze from a campfire, or even a hot tailpipe on a vehicle can set off a dry area of grass or trees when the fire danger index is high.  Be aware of potential ignition sources and manage them accordingly.

Safety First

Fire safety comes down to watching and managing fires and potential ignition sources.  Never use accelerants that aren’t intended to assist with ignition.  This includes gasoline, aerosols, and other chemical fuel sources which may explode and rapidly combust, causing injury.  Keep common warm-weather aerosol canisters such as bug spray and sunscreen away from a campfire area.  Limit the size of fires to a manageable level, and don’t exceed the capacity of a given fire ring.  Monitor kids’ activities around fires and keep them at a safe distance (extra long sticks for marshmallow roasting are a good investment) from all fires and never leave young people unsupervised around a fire.

With the first campfires of the season starting up across the region, it is important to remember the impact fire can have on property, the lives of people, and the habitat our wildlife rely on for nesting, breeding and survival throughout the summer.  Make the experience a positive one by responsibly managing a fire, whether it’s at the lake, at the campground or anywhere else it is allowed and prudent…in our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: A designated firepit helps contain and control one of this season’s favorite recreational activities. Simonson Photo)

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