Risk Reporter for Camps and Conference Centers
Summer 2015 Vol. 9, Issue 2
Enjoy campfires but keep focus on safety
As the sun sets and the heat of the day gives way to cool evening temperatures, what’s more fun than a roaring fire, a bag of marshmallows and a few choruses of your favorite camp songs? Before you light that first match, however, review the following safety tips to protect campers, staff members and the forest.
Check conditions. Drought, high winds and searing temperatures are reasons not to have a campfire. “Know what’s happening in your area,” when considering an evening around the fire pit, said Sean Slinkard, a fire prevention officer at Modoc National Forest in California.
Pick the right site. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service recommends lighting a fire in a level spot that is far away from overhanging branches, brush or dry grass. Don’t light a fire near the base of a hill — a fire can travel uphill very quickly. “Have 50 to 100 feet of clearance between your fire and surrounding vegetation,” Slinkard said. “Look around and ask yourself, ‘If the fire got out of the ring, where would it go?’ Rocky spots are a good choice.”
Use a fire pit. If possible, use existing fire rings to avoid damaging soil and the vegetation. Otherwise, according to the Forest Service, use a shovel to clear a circle that is 10 feet in diameter and dig a pit at the center of the circle that is 6 inches deep and 2 feet across. Line the fire pit with stones.
Know your duff. What looks like dirt might actually be duff — the layer of decomposing materials that is found between pine needles and bare dirt. Duff burns, so when you’re clearing a site, get down to the dirt, not the duff.
Do not use accelerants. Kerosene, gasoline and lighter fluid have no place on your campfire. “Start your fire with wood, paper and sticks,” said Rona Roffey, camp director at YMCA Camp Duncan in Illinois.
Be prepared. Have a shovel, buckets and water handy to keep your fire under control.
Keep your distance. “Limit how many people are near the fire at a time and, if you’re roasting marshmallows or hot dogs, use sticks that are at least 3- to 4-feet long,” Roffey said.
Have adults manage the fire. “The kids can help set up the fire, but an adult should light the match and be present at all times while the fire is burning,” Roffey said.
Keep your fire small. “Typically, limit your fire to 4 feet by 4 feet,” Slinkard said. “It really depends on the time of year, access to fuel and weather conditions.”
Do not leave a fire unattended. A campfire should be attended by an adult at all times, according to the Forest Service.
Put your fire out completely. An adult should “drown” the fire 30 minutes before leaving camp or going to bed at night. Pour water into the fire and mix it with the ashes. Use your shovel to separate burning pieces of wood. Don’t bury a fire under the dirt — the embers could burn for hours and spread later. Keep campers away during this process. “You should be able to put the back of your hand near the embers — it might still feel a bit warm but not truly be burning,” Slinkard said.