Campfire Safety in Drought Conditions Back »

Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service [CC BY 2.0] via USDA Flickr

Dry Weather & Campfire Safety

Recently, fire authorities in California announced that a large wildfire in their state was sparked by an illegal campfire that, although contained in a fire pit, was not completely extinguished. When drought conditions exist, as they currently do in many areas of western South Dakota, this simple act can result in catastrophic damage to land, wildlife, structures and human lives.

For many of us who love camping and the outdoors, the campfire is a big part of the charm of the outdoor experience. We enjoy its warmth, the experience of cooking over an open fire and the comradery of telling stories, singing or just gazing into those beautiful blazes. However, if you truly love the outdoors, you must do your homework before deciding if a campfire will be part of your experience when conditions are dry.

When you are thinking about whether or not your camping trip or even your backyard cookout should include a campfire, please consider ALL of the following factors and rules for a safe experience:

Know before you go.

During fire season, open fires may be prohibited or otherwise restricted by the regulatory agency in charge of the campground or facility that you are visiting. In extreme fire danger situations, a county government can restrict fires in residential settings as well. To find out about the area that you plan to visit or host a campfire at anywhere in the United States, you can consult the Fire Restrictions website. At this site, you can easily find the daily restrictions effective for any county location in South Dakota or any other state. If you plan to visit the Black Hills, the Black Hills Area Fire Restrictions website will provide you with up-to-date, specific information about any restrictions that are in effect at sites managed by a variety of different government entities in the area.

If you find that you will not be permitted to have a campfire, make sure that you allow for other methods of safe food preparation. Often, small camping stoves using propane or other contained fuel sources are permitted even when campfires are not. Familiarize yourself before you leave with these items and their safe use. Cooking on a camp stove may not be quite as much fun as campfire cooking but with a little planning, you can still create a fun menu for your crew. As for your evening entertainment, keep in mind that many state and national parks offer evening ranger/naturalist programs that are suitable for families to enjoy together.

Locating your campfire.

According the Boy Scouts of America, the best location for your campfire is always in an existing fire pit that was constructed by the park or campsite you are visiting. Often, fire restrictions will only allow for fires in established fire rings or fire pits. If you are permitted and must construct your own site for a campfire, keep in mind that you should avoid areas near your tent, vehicles, shrubs and trees, and also be aware of low-hanging branches. Construct your fire pit by clearing the site down to mineral soil for a 10' diameter circle. Surround your campfire site with large rocks. Finally, remember to store your unused firewood a good distance from the fire.

Burn wood only.

Do not burn paper, plastic or food remains as they may produce more sparks and cause accidental ignition of surrounding materials. Did you know that different types of wood burn differently? For a campfire, look for wood that burns with minimal sparking and smokiness. Some suggestions include oaks, ash and elm woods. For more information on this topic, see It’s Time for a Review on Buying Firewood SDSU Extension Forestry Specialist Dr. John Ball.

Keep your campfire small!

A small fire is easier to contain and control. Never add lighter fluids or gasoline.

Make sure that an adult is there to attend your fire at all times.

You should also always have a shovel and a large quantity of water readily available to control the fire if need be.

Be absolutely sure that your fire is completely out before you go to sleep or leave the site!

The best way to accomplish this is to drown the coals with water, stir with the shovel and drown again until it is completely extinguished. A good rule of thumb is that if the coals are too hot to touch, your fire is too hot to leave unattended.

Finally, remember to always keep an eye on small children and pets while you are enjoying your campfire songs and those tasty S’mores. By following these guidelines, you can rest easy knowing that your precautions will help allow for many more great safe outdoor experiences in this season and in the future.

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