Tomorrow, my family and I plan to embark on a five-day road trip out to Eastern Oregon. We’ll be towing a rented Airstream and passing through some of the state’s—and the country’s—most beautiful scenic places. And much to my wife’s dismay, I intend to stop at each and every historical point of interest on the way. That means museums, roadside historical markers… you name it! (If you’re interested in the history of European/American exploration of the Pacific Northwest, I can’t recommend Peter Stark’s book Astoria heartily enough!) But not to worry; we’ll be stopping at plenty of craft breweries, too.
Unfortunately, one thing we’ll have to consider on our trip is where wildfires are burning. At best, they may force us to change our route. At worst, they could put us—and any communities and wildlife in their path—in serious danger. (As I type these words, there’s currently a 1,750-acre, lightning-caused wildfire burning in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, not too far from where we’re headed.)
In the past few years, as climate change has made summers in the American West hotter and drier, wildfires in the United States have become more frequent, and dramatically more intense and destructive. Though wildfire has always been a part of nature—historically resulting from lightning strikes or other natural causes—most fires today are the result of human activity; according to the U.S. Forest Service, “Nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the U.S are caused by humans,” with causes ranging from “campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, equipment use and malfunctions, negligently discarded cigarettes, and intentional acts of arson.”
“Nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the U.S are caused by humans…” – U.S. Forest Service.
If you’d like to learn more about wildfires, fire management and forest management in the United States, I recommended listening to the REI-produced podcast Wildfire, an excellent series on the past, present and future of the phenomenon. (Full disclosure: I was fortunate enough to have a small hand in the production of this series thanks to the awesome team over at Bedrock Filmworks.)
I’m also lucky to work with the excellent team at Solo Stove, who—in what I consider an eminently responsible and proactive move, for which they should be applauded—have just unveiled their fantastic Solo Stove Shield spark screen, which fits perfectly on their amazing fire pits, and keeps embers and sparks from escaping.
Having worked on these projects, and considering my family and I live in a part of the world vulnerable to wildfires—natural and human caused—I thought it’d be beneficial to share some of what I’ve learned in terms of best practices for outdoor fire safety. Hopefully, these tips will help you make good decisions about your outdoor fires, whether they’re in your backyard fire pit or deep in the wilderness on a backpacking trip!
Outdoor Fire and Fire Pit Safety Tips
Check the law: First things first; check your local fire ordinances. Much like laws that govern the use of fireworks, your town—or the area where you’re camping or traveling—likely has laws that spell out if and when outdoor fires can be lit, and what steps are required in order to legally do so. These laws and regulations are put in place for safety, and, in many areas, failing to observe these laws can result in some hefty fines.
Make sure it’s stable: If you’re building an outdoor fire in a fire pit, place it on a level surface to prevent it from tipping over, and spilling burning logs and embers onto potentially flammable materials. Make sure your fire pit is stable and secure before building your fire.
Don’t build your fire over roots: It might come as a surprise to learn that roots can not only catch fire underground, but they can smolder for “months or even years,” starting wildfires long after the initial fire was thought to be extinguished. With this in mind, be sure to check whether you’re inadvertently building your fire over a root system, and, if so, move your fire elsewhere.
Pay attention to the weather: Avoid building an outdoor fire on windy days, since flames, sparks or embers can spread to your home, yard, trees and other flammable materials. It’s also wise to avoid building a fire if the weather has been dry; many local ordinances ban all fires in “peak fire conditions.” If you’re unsure whether you’re allowed to burn, it’s safest to call your local fire department or ranger station to check.
Stick to burning only wood and kindling: Don’t start your fire by using gasoline, lighter fluid, kerosene or other accelerants. It can be tempting, but a properly built fire doesn’t need anything to get it going aside from kindling, wood and a flame or spark. By using accelerants and fuels to aid in the starting of a fire, you can cause the fire to quickly get out of control.
Have an adult in attendance at all times: “Playing with fire,” is a bad idea at any age, but adults are more inclined to be sensible about the risks and aware of the potential consequences of getting too close to the flames or having flames, sparks or embers escape and ignite a fire where it’s not wanted.
Keep your fire away from flammable materials: Make sure you’re building your fire or positioning your fire pit at least 15 feet away from any trees, plants, overhanging foliage, powerlines, vehicles or anything else that could potentially catch fire. According to the U.S. Forest service, a single ember that escapes from an outdoor fire can travel up to a mile, and a single ember is more than enough to start a wildfire.
Keep emergency extinguishing material nearby: It’s wise to have a garden hose, a bucket full of water—or some form of water source—and/or a fire extinguisher close to your fire in case things accidentally get out of hand.
Fully extinguish with water: I can’t overstate this one enough; after you’ve finished with your fire, soak all your burn material in water, even if you think the fire is completely out. All ash should be cold to the touch and wet before a fire is considered fully out. Many forest fires are started by abandoned campfires that were thought to be fully extinguished, but later flared back to life.
By taking these precautions when building an outdoor fire, you’ll drastically reduce the chances of accidentally starting a fire somewhere you don’t want one. And that means you’ll be able to sit back, enjoy the flames… and maybe enjoy a beer from one of those craft breweries I can’t wait to visit in the next five days!