How to build a campfire safely: Campfire containment tips for everyone

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Creating a campfire is an amazingly fun activity for children — and adults, too. It’s educational, exciting, and teaches an important lesson about responsibility. We’ve made a handy guide for you with all the info you need to create and enjoy your own campfire — and most important, how to stay safe and keep forests safe while you do so. Have a read below and you’ll be Kumbaya-ing around your very own campfire in no time. 

Wildfire worries are real

We’re all aware of the danger of fires. While it’s easy to dismiss terrible wildfires when they happen as a result of weather and atmospheric conditions, the truth is the U.S. Department of Interior states that as many as 90 percent of wildfires in the United States are caused by careless or stupid acts by people.

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As most of you will know from the extensive media coverage at the time, a state of emergency had to be declared in California in late 2019 with over 200,000 evacuated from their at-risk homes, while Los Angeles’ Getty Fire in October of the same year saw over seven thousand homes subject to a mandatory evacuation zone order. 

In fact, the National Interagency Fire Center’s figures suggest as many as 46,706 wildfires raged in 2019, with around 4.6 million acres burned in that time period. We’re here to help you make sure you’re not the one responsible for such a statistic in 2020. 

How to build a campfire safely: Campfire containment  tips for everyone

Image: Shutterstock / Benevolente82

Planning for your campfire 

Before you even think about picking up a pack of matches, there are some serious considerations to be taken. 

  • Weather Check the weather report for the place you’re planning to create your fire. Your main concerns are humidity and wind conditions. Low humidity means the air is drier, which means fire will burn more easily. Low humidity is not a reason not to have a campfire, it’s just something you should be aware of. But wind is the biggie. If it’s windy enough to make trees sway and blow leaves and debris around, then it’s too windy for a campfire. Better to do it another night.

  • Check with local authorities You should check with the local authorities to ensure there are no bans or droughts in the area you’re planning to make a campfire in. One online resource is the United States Drought Monitor, a map of the country that is updated every Thursday with drought conditions. It’s also advised, if relevant, to check in with any local forestry or wildland commissions for your area.

  • Get a permit In some parts of the country you will need to obtain an official permit before you can make a campfire. In California for example, you must get a campfire permit. They are free and can be obtained from any CAL FIRE, U.S. Forest Service, or Bureau of Land Management station or office.

  • Location, location, location: Where to create your campfire is an important consideration. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) advises selecting a level, open location away from heavy fuels such as logs, brush, or decaying leaves and needles. If you can find somewhere that has a fireproof natural windbreak, such as rocks or boulders, take advantage of that.

  • Water: Another thing to think about is proximity to water. If you’re far away from a water source, then it’s absolutely essential that you bring your own water with you — at least a large bucket’s worth, but as much as can be carried. If, however, you can build your campfire by a natural water source, such as stream, river, pond or lake, then this is strongly advised from a safety point of view.

  • Note your exact spot: Once you’ve established the location, make a note of it, i.e., the name of the campsite, the GPS coordinates, the number or name of any local location markers, etc, so that if there is an issue you can direct emergency services and/or authorities directly to the site.

Preparing the fire pit 

As with most things in life, the key to a safe and successful campfire is preparation. CAL FIRE states that you must clear an area at least 10 feet in diameter, but advises that local regulations may vary, so you might want to check this. Once you’ve cleared the area, scrape away any grass, leaves, or needles down to the soil level. Scoop a shallow hole in the center of the cleared area and then place a ring of rocks around it.

Move anything flammable way back from the fire area, including the wood you’re planning to burn. It’s tempting to have it close at hand for convenience, but for safety reasons it needs to be at a distance, preferably behind that rock windbreak if you were lucky enough to find one. 

Before you begin to build your fire, make sure you have that bucket of water to hand, as well as a metal shovel. 

What you’ll need 

You’ll need the following:

  • Tinder Tinder is anything that is going to burn easily. Think dried leaves, dried grass, dry pine needles, cattails, and if there’s any at hand, birch tree and cedar tree bark are amazing natural fire starters. 

  • Kindling Any kind of dry sticks, twigs and bark, and dry fir and pine cones also work well.

  • Firewood Obviously this also needs to be as dry as possible. You’ll want smaller pieces while the fire is getting going, then larger ones when it’s established to create a long-lasting campfire.

  • Matches We find matches the best way to light a campfire. Any ordinary matches should do the job, but if you’re building a fire with kids, then the extra-long safety matches are recommended. You could also use a long fireplace lighter, but matches are more fun.

What you don’t need

Firelighters or any kind of accelerant

Liquid accelerants are never a good idea, it’s all too easy for the fire to travel up the stream of liquid. Firelighters are less dangerous, but can give off a chemical smell — and where’s the challenge in cheating?

Making and lighting your campfire 

Now the exciting part starts. Follow these simple steps to get your fire going.

1. Poke a piece of kindling into the ground, sticking out at an angle. 

2. Put a pile of tinder under the kindling. 

3. Place any particularly tiny twigs gently on top of the tinder. 

4. Make a teepee-shaped structure of kindling around the tinder, not too tightly packed but touching at the top so the fire can spread. 

5. Have your smaller pieces of firewood ready to put on the fire when it catches. 

6. Double check that the bucket of water and metal shovel are still close at hand!

7. Light a match and touch it to the tinder, it should ignite straightaway, then the dry kindling should catch. 

8. When it’s merrily burning away, gradually add the firewood, starting with the smaller pieces first. 

9. Do not let the fire get any larger than is required. 

How to build a campfire safely: Campfire containment  tips for everyone

Image: Shutterstock / Africa Studio

During your campfire

Throughout the entire duration of your campfire, ensure the water and shovel don’t get moved by anyone and make doubly sure that a responsible (need we say sober?) adult is next to the fire at all times. Keep an eye out for sparks and embers flying out of the fire and landing outside your safe cleared zone. If this does happen then you should be able to extinguish the using the sole of your boot or the metal shovel depending on size, but if they prove hard to put out do not hesitate to use a small amount of water. 

What happens if the fire gets too big or spreads?

Hopefully this won’t happen to you, but as always, it’s best to be prepared. If the worst case scenario happens and the fire does spread, do the following. 

  • Make sure you know where everyone in your party is.

  • Ensure everyone in your party knows there is an issue. 

  • If it’s safe to do so, start trying to extinguish the fire using water. 

  • If you can’t extinguish it, alert everyone in the proximity (e.g. other campers, absolutely anyone else nearby) to the risk. 

  • Retreat to a safe distance. Only take personal items and equipment with you if it’s safe to do so, if not, leave them. 

  • Call 911, ask for the fire service and be prepared to tell them the exact location as established in your preparation process. 

  • Contact the relevant authorities.

How to build a campfire safely: Campfire containment  tips for everyone

Image: Shutterstock / Jacob Lund

How to safely extinguish your campfire 

Assuming you didn’t have to follow the steps outlined in our emergency procedure guidelines, then it’s essential you ensure your campfire is 100% extinguished before you leave it. 

CAL FIRE urges people to use the “drown, stir and feel” method. It’s not the most catchy phrase to remember, but it is effective. 

First drown the fire with water.

Then stir around the fire area with your shovel to wet any remaining embers and ash. CAL FIRE advises turning all pieces of wood and and coals over to wet all sides. Move some dirt onto the fire site and mix thoroughly to fully smother it. 

Finally, feel the area with the back of your hand to ensure it is cold and nothing is still smoldering. If it is, repeat the process above. 

All fired up 

Hopefully this has given you the knowledge and confidence to enjoy a successful campfire experience, and most importantly of all, keep yourself, others and the surrounding area safe. The golden rule is, if at all in doubt, put it out! You know what you need to do and what you need to do it with, so all you need to worry about now is who’s bringing the s’mores… 

 

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