9 Steps for Building a Safer Campfire
Updated: Jul 10
A few thoughts on outdoor fire safety as we head into fire season in North America.
As climate change makes summers around the world hotter and drier, wildfires have become more frequent, dramatically more intense and infinitely more destructive; the Australian bushfires of early 2020—fueled by record-breaking high temperatures and months of severe drought—may have given us a glimpse of the future should we fail to act on climate change quickly and decisively.
Yes, wildfire has always been a part of nature—historically resulting from lightning strikes or other natural causes—but today, most fires today are the result of human activity; according to the U.S. Forest Service, “Nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the U.S are caused by humans,” with causes including “campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, equipment use and malfunctions, negligently discarded cigarettes, and intentional acts of arson.”
“Nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the U.S are caused by humans…” – U.S. Forest Service.
With that in mind, it’s crucial that responsible outdoorspeople take follow the best practices for fire safety and take them seriously. Hopefully, these tips will help you make good decisions about your outdoor fires.
Fire Safety Tips
Check the law: First things first; check your local fire ordinances. Much like laws that govern the use of fireworks, your town—or the area where you’re camping or traveling—likely has laws that spell out if and when outdoor fires can be lit, and what steps are required in order to legally do so. These laws and regulations are put in place for safety, and, in many areas, failing to observe these laws can result in some hefty fines.
Make sure it’s stable: If you’re building an outdoor fire, place it on a level surface to prevent it from tipping over and spilling burning logs and embers onto potentially flammable materials.
Don’t build your fire over roots: It might come as a surprise to learn that roots can not only catch fire underground, but they can smolder for “months or even years,” starting wildfires long after the initial fire was thought to be extinguished. With this in mind, be sure to check whether you’re inadvertently building your fire over a root system, and, if so, move your fire elsewhere.
Pay attention to the weather: Avoid building an outdoor fire on windy days, since flames, sparks or embers can spread to your home, yard, trees and other flammable materials. It’s also wise to avoid building a fire if the weather has been dry; many local ordinances ban all fires in “peak fire conditions.” If you’re unsure whether you’re allowed to burn, it’s safest to call your local fire department or ranger station to check.
Stick to burning only wood and kindling: Don’t start your fire by using gasoline, lighter fluid, kerosene or other accelerants. It can be tempting, but a properly built fire doesn’t need anything to get it going aside from kindling, wood and a flame or spark. By using accelerants and fuels to aid in the starting of a fire, you can cause the fire to quickly get out of control.
Have an adult in attendance at all times: “Playing with fire,” is a bad idea at any age, but adults are more inclined to be sensible about the risks and aware of the potential consequences of getting too close to the flames or having flames, sparks or embers escape and ignite a fire where it’s not wanted.
Keep your fire away from flammable materials: Make sure you’re building your fire at least 15 feet away from any trees, plants, overhanging foliage, power lines, vehicles or anything else that could potentially ignite. According to the U.S. Forest service, a single ember that escapes from an outdoor fire can travel up to a mile, and a single ember is more than enough to start a wildfire.
Keep emergency extinguishing material nearby: It’s wise to have a pot full of water, a full water bottle or some other form of a water source close to your fire in case things accidentally get out of hand.
Fully extinguish with water: We can’t overstate this one enough; after you’ve finished with your fire, soak all your burn material in water, even if you think the fire is completely out. All ash should be cold to the touch and wet before a fire is considered fully out. Many forest fires are started by abandoned campfires that were thought to be fully extinguished, but later flared back to life.
By taking these precautions when building an outdoor fire, you’ll drastically reduce the chances of accidentally starting a fire somewhere you don’t want one. And that means you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the flames.