Prevent wildfires by following safe campfire practices

While enjoying a campfire this summer, remember to follow recommended campfire guidelines that will protect not only our natural resources and wildlife, but also homes and people living nearby.

For many years, Smokey Bear has been admonishing countless adults and children with, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” This summer, much of the country has been experiencing very hot and dry conditions that make campfire safety precautions even more important. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) will hold individuals responsible financially for the cost of putting out a wildfire that results from outdoor burning they are conducting. This includes campfires that “escape.” Reimbursement for property damage that occurs during a wildfire for which a person is found responsible may also be sought.

To make sure that your enjoyment of a campfire is not marred by a costly wildfire, both the MDNR and Smokey Bear offer tips for preparing your campfire site, managing the fire and thoroughly extinguishing the campfire when done.

Whether at home in the back yard or at a campground, it is advisable to have a rake, shovel or other garden tool handy before you build any outdoor fire. Having water available to help extinguish the fire is also recommended. Under no circumstances should an outdoor fire, including a campfire, be left unattended. It only takes a spark or fire creeping along the ground into dry vegetation to start a wildfire.

Another reason for remaining attentive at the campfire site is to prevent small children and pets from being burned by hot coals that were not properly extinguished.

In preparing a campfire site, select a spot that has easy access to water and is sheltered from prevailing winds. Make sure you build the fire at least 10 feet away from logs, stumps and other forest debris, and at least 30 feet from any buildings. Be mindful that the space above the intended fire site does not have overhanging branches. It is best to scrape a 3 foot diameter area right down to soil and remove all pine needles, dead grass, leaves, twigs, and other combustible material in a 10 foot diameter. If possible, dig a pit about a foot deep and circle the pit with rocks.

Campfires should not exceed 3 feet in height and diameter. Refrain from burning a campfire if strong winds are blowing or if outdoor conditions are such that it is unlikely the fire will be able to burn safely from start to finish. Start with small dry pieces of wood and place unused firewood upwind and away from the campfire.

Campfires can be constructed in a variety of styles. Always start by loosely piling a few handfuls of tinder (small twigs, dry leaves, grass needles) in the center of your fire pit. Once the fire is lit, add more tinder and then kindling to keep the fire going. Sticks smaller than 1” in diameter make good kindling. Finally, add enough larger pieces of dry wood to keep the fire burning steadily, but of a manageable size.

Once you are done enjoying your campfire, thoroughly dowse it with water until the hissing stops, stir the ashes to uncover warm spots and apply water again. If you do not have water, mix dirt or sand with the embers and stir until all material is cool.

Do not bury the fire as it can continue to smolder, catch roots on fire and eventually get to the surface again, possibly starting a wildfire. If the fire is lined with any rocks or bricks, move them to make sure they are not covering any hot coals. Before you leave the site, make sure the fire is completely out. Smokey says “If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.”

Some general rules of thumb for enjoying campfires include:

  • Never cut live trees or branches from live trees for your campfire.
  • Never burn aerosol cans or pressurized containers as they may explode and harm someone.
  • Never put glass in the fire pit as glass does not melt, in fact, it shatters and the broken slivers are dangerous.
  • Never attempt to burn aluminum cans as they merely break down into smaller pieces and inhaling the aluminum dust can be harmful to your lungs.

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