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Every year, many camping families feel the painful, expensive and sometimes catastrophic effects of a campfire accident. The unfortunate truth is that almost every incident could be avoided, if proper campfire protocol were followed. The rules of keeping a safe campfire are pretty straightforward and easy. Paying attention to these things will not only help keep you from personal injury, but can also help prevent a fire from getting out of control and burning up the whole forest.
Rule 1: Check with local officials. Park rangers, Sheriff’s office, Forest Service personnel, etc., will be able to tell you about local fire dangers and places where campfires are prohibited. Burning permits may be required in some areas. It is always a good idea to let the local authorities know when and where you will be camping.
Rule 2: Establish a clean and safe firebase. Remove all brush, leaves, twigs, pine duff or other combustible materials from the area of the campfire. Clear the ground down to mineral soil (no organic material), and then put the fire in the middle of that circle. Surround the fire with a circular wall of large stones that will help keep embers from being blown by the wind. Keep the supply of firewood well back from the fire, so a stray spark doesn’t ignite it.
Before establishing your fire circle, look up to make sure you are not building the blaze beneath overhanging branches. Avoid building the fire near dead stumps, rotten logs or dry grasses.
Rule 3: Pay attention to the weather. Be constantly aware of changing weather patterns that might result in hot, dry, windy spells that would increase local fire hazard. Use common sense when determining whether or not it is safe to have a fire — even if the authorities say it’s OK. After all, if your campfire gets away from you and turns into a brush fire or forest fire, it’s your responsibility.
Rule 4: Never leave the fire unattended. At all times, there must be a competent adult in camp who understands how to stand a fire watch and what to do in case the fire gets out of control. Teach your children about fire safety, but do not leave children in charge of the fire. Never leave camp unattended (even for a little while) without putting the fire out.
Rule 5: Everyone in the group needs to understand fire safety. You’re never too old or too young to learn. Teach them to stay a safe distance away, to stay on the upwind side of the fire so there’s less danger from smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning. Children, especially, need to understand that it isn’t good to “play” near the fire or with the fire. Throwing sticks into the blaze is a bad idea, too, as it can raise a shower of sparks that can start an unwanted fire.
Rule 6: Build the fire carefully. Begin slowly, adding larger material only as needed, to keep the size of the fire within reason. Keep it low and slow, just burning enough fuel to give you light and heat and cook your food, if that’s what you’re doing. A big fire poses more danger of getting away from you, and causes you to stand away from the heat anyway. You want a small enough fire to allow you to toast your marshmallows without starting your shirt on fire. Speaking of which, don’t reach across the campfire.
Rule 7: Extinguish the fire completely. When it’s time to put the fire out, make sure it’s REALLY OUT. Keep a bucket and shovel handy to help with this process. To extinguish the fire, drown it with water, stir all the embers, coals and partially burned fuel into the wet slush. Move the rocks around and check for hidden embers. If you don’t have water, use mineral soil (not soil with organic material mixed in). If it’s too hot to touch, keep stirring it around.
Rule 8: If the fire does manage to get out of hand, you need to act quickly, but rationally. Remain calm and make a reasonable effort to extinguish the fire, but don’t do anything so “heroic” that your life or your family’s are at risk. If you can’t put the flames out, immediately call 911 from your cell phone or the nearest landline and get the emergency crews on their way. When you get the authorities on the phone, stay on the line with them so you can advise them of the local conditions.
Floyd Peoples, Chief Fire Marshal, Kansas City, Mo., Fire Department, 816-784-9100
Heart of America Metro Fire Chiefs Council, 9550 W. 95th St., Overland Park, Kan. 66212