Campfires are the center of almost every camping experience. They really define most people’s thoughts about camping. Even people camping in the heat of summer insist upon a fire, and it has become simple instinct to sit around one as the evening turns into night. That said, unsafe fires are extremely dangerous, and many people don’t pay attention to the simple fact that in reality, they are literally playing with fire.
Before You Get Started
To build a safe fire, you start off by looking at the weather or asking the park ranger or camp director about fire warnings. There is always a risk of an out of control fire, but warm temperatures and a dry season greatly compound those risks. Park rangers try very hard to keep all campers informed of fire restrictions, and if they are in place, follow them exactly.
Also, be sure your fuel is safe. Some people bring in scrap or waste wood for lighting fires, which is fine as long as it is not pressure treated lumber. Never burn pressure treated lumber. Pressure treated lumber contains arsenic, which becomes a component of the smoke you inhale and can poison you. Also, don’t burn poison ivy, oak, or sumac. Again, the smoke can vaporize the irritating oils, and inhalation of them can cause your lungs to swell and close up.
Prep Your Site
Lighting fires just anywhere is a recipe for disaster. To make a safe fire ring, first clear a 10 foot diameter around your fire pit of all debris. This includes leaves, sticks, acorns, or anything else. The ground should be reduced to bare dirt. Ten feet may seem like a lot, but sparks can pop and fly out of the ring, so you must be prepared. If you plan to light a large fire, the ring should be even bigger. A quick rule would be that the cleared ring should be four times the radius of the fire pit.
For the fire pit itself, some people prefer to dig the area out a little bit. This is completely fine, and may improve safety, but it is not absolutely necessary. It should have a border of a non-flammable material like rocks. This will help keep the burning wood inside the ring where it belongs. Wood should never stick out of the ring, since it could snap and flip outside if it is only partly within the ring.
Have an Extinguisher Ready
You should never have a fire without a method of putting it out on hand. For each foot of your fire pit in diameter, this should be about one large bucket of water. That is probably enough to extinguish the campfire twice, but it pays to be prepared. Many people skip this step and then can’t react when the fire is out of control.
Fire extinguishers are a great thing to have on hand as well. By “on hand” I mean that you should be able to stand up and grab it within four footsteps. Do not keep the buckets or extinguisher directly next to the fire, since they will heat and could burn you if you went to grab one.
Put the Fire Out Completely
When it is time to walk away, put the fire out completely. Embers can relight for hours after the flames have died, so you must put it out completely long before you want to leave. The standard method of doing this is to douse the area with water. Once doused, stir the ashes with a stick. This should make a muddy ash puddle by the time the ashes are truly doused. Test it by touching it with your hand when you are completely sure it is out. The fire should be no more than warm to your touch. If it is hot add more water and keep stirring.
Most campfires are fun and safe. You can have a good time and be safe as well, and going the extra steps might add only 4-5 minutes to your chores for the day. Still, forest fires are dangerous and damaging, so for the sakes of everyone who shares these resources, please take the time to have a safe, fun camping trip.