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By the Warmth of Campfire- To burn or not to burn

Updated: Feb 17

The chill is in the air, the winds are kicking up, and sky has it's blanket of leaky grey all ready to tuck us in for the winter. Fall fell nicely and you know what winter's doing. For many, it's also the season to sit around a fire for the early dark evening, especially when camping.

campfire, winter camp, winter camping,
Winter fire to help dry soggy boots

To quote Young Frankenstein- "Fire gooood. Fire is our friend."

But it's that kind of friend you can't leave alone for too long or your house gets destroyed. Fun to be with when you can keep them reined in, but don't let them watch the children. And like those friends, fire is just not good to have in certain locations at all. Like in book shops, hay barns, and high elevations. That last may not be as intuitive to most people. Let's discuss!

First of all- what IS fire? A refresher, if you will.

by Wolfgang Stief

Fire is a simple formula. It is a burnable substance (fuel- wood, grass, plastic, hair, etc) + oxygen (for combustion reaction) + heat (to start the combustion). If you deny an area any 1 of these components, fire will not happen. We usually can't prevent the oxygen and many things can be fuels, so the key to fire prevention is the heat. Don't get all hot & bothered, and ya won't have fire. Maybe don't hike naked, for safety!

by Land Between the Lakes

Back to "fire=good", generally. Many habitats around the US and globe are fire-adapted and even need fire to thrive in the long term, and we use fire for all sorts of things. What we don't want are "wild fires" which are fires that are spreading out of control and unintentional. Pubic use (sorry... PUBLIC USE) of fire is typically with small burn piles to get rid of yard debris (not in cities) or in a small fire for the backyard fire pit or camping. And it's the campfires that actually do start a lot of decimating wildfires with some other human-origin fires causes. Most are totally preventable with a tiny bit of care. And while camping, you have to intentionally start a fire (you ain't THAT hot just on your own). So the prevention of a wildfire from campfires in how to tend them & making sure they are out and COLD before leaving camp.

smoking campfire
This is definitely not out cold, no leaving yet. (by Intermountain Forest Service)

One should also ask- do I really need a fire? And is this camp site safe for fires?

A little hint you may not know:

Just because there's a fire ring, does NOT mean fires are legal in that location.
high elevation camp, campfire
high elevation camp = no fire ring

It's easy to put some rocks in a circle and a lot of people do it despite clear & plentiful signs

that open fires are not allowed. "Camp stoves only" means that site should not have a fire and it's not because forest rangers just HATE for campers to have fun by a fire. Those signs are up for a reason. Those rules behind them are in place FOR SEVERAL REASONS.

Trail closed due to wildfire damage
no campfires, campfires, high elevation camping

To burn or not to burn, that should be the question before you even head up to camp. It varies by locations and land managers/owners, but a general rule is that anything above mid-elevation isn't suitable for fire in general which means recreational campfires as well.

If you've hiked in high elevation well-used trails, you've probably seen these "no campfire" or "stoves only" signs. If you didn't know why the forest managers would put those up, I can fill you in. It is not to ruin your fun by a fire.

burned stump from fire, fire adapted forest
very old stump that saw long ago fire in fire-adapted Douglas fir forest

High elevation forests have several things changed from lower elevations. The trees are different species for one, and they typically grow a bit slower (increasingly slow as you climb higher). The soil is also less organic, because wood breaks down slower. And these forests are simply not as fire-adapted; they see natural fires between say 100 to 500 years apart, versus lower elevations that may see them 20-50 years apart and the trees are better at surviving a low-moderate intensity fire (before humans started fighting natural fires).

Basically- higher elevations can't handle the increased risk of a fire nor the frequent harvesting of wood around campsites because the trees grow too slowly to replenish. NEVER cut down a tree just to have a fire. For one, that's not very burnable (it's still loaded with water) and even a small tree could be hundreds if not around 1000 years old.

apline forest, treeline, campfires
WA forest above the "tree-line" with sparse slow-growing trees
Don't be a woodland dick.

States, regions, and management regulations of course vary in what is legal and what a forest can handle. National Parks are much less likely to allow campfires because they are more protected and very popular. And some areas aren't as much of a wildfire risk, like the south east US which is more rainy in the summer. In my area of the PNW, with summer droughts and dense conifer forests, wildfire risk is high in the summer.

tree on fire, prescribed burn, prairie fire, campfire, natural coalescence
Douglas fir tree torching quickly in prescribed prairie fire where they have encroached and are not as fire-tolerant

In most areas, no open fires are permitted above the treeline elevation.
treeline elevation, high elevation
Visible treeline at alpine level with deciduous larches golden in fall at the very edge

In the PNW, fires have to stay below 3,500', but in Yosemite National Park in CA which is less forested, fires can be up to 6,000'. If I want a toasty fire to fight off the winter chill or to help fight back the summer mosquitos (a bit), then stick to camps under the 3.5k' line. Many national parks around the US limit fires to below 5,000' which is there treeline (aka- where dense forest growth and moister soil and shade is). Lower elevations are safer, more adapted to fires or less likely to have a truly devastating wildfire sweep through. Very useful additional detail- here.

forest fire, high elevation fire, campfires, illegal fire
The Soberanes Fire located in the Los Padres National Forest in CA, 2016 started by an illegal campfire. By US Dept of Agriculture

Before you light up, know what's allowed where you'll be camping and if there's a burn-ban in effect (usually during the dry & hot seasons). These will be in place when it is super dangerous to have open fires, so even where they are normally allowed, you should not have one if there's a burn ban. Keep your eyes out along the drive to camping areas (fire stations and ranger stations have those color-coded fire-danger signs) and at the trailhead there is often a placard with important notices, maybe a map ("bear in area", "no fires", etc).

no campfires, campfires
by San Bernardino Nat'l Forest

When you get to a camp where fires ARE permitted, collect only dead fallen wood and small pieces that will fit in an established fire ring (remember- a ring being at a spot does not mean fires are permitted because uninformed campers also create them). And keep fires small. The isolated wild is not place for a rager, unless you're trying to keep bigfoot away. When done with the fire, make sure it is out, ashes are cold, and you pour water on them and stir to make sure. Steam and sizzle means it's still hot and could have embers blow out in a gust of wind and start a fire near by.

From the WA Trails Association: "Fires can often creep along the ground, slowly burning roots and dead leaves. Days later, the smoldering fire could break out into a real wildfire."

illegal campfire, no campfires, wildfires
The illegal campfire's rock ring. Fire creeped out under the rocks and spread into nearby vegetaion via dry pine needles on the ground. 2021 Bluff Fire. By San Bernardino Nat'l Forest
wildfire, illegal campfire, no campfires, campfire, campfire caused wildfire

It warrants saying- don't burn trash. Paper is generally ok, but plastics, foil, and other metal (plus glass, which shouldn't be brought out for the cut hazard) do NOT burn up. Those materials are not consumed in fire, just melted or hidden in the ash. No one wants to see your blob of a plastic bottle in the fire when they get to camp after you. Or tissues (EW!) or eggshells or pistachio shells along the trail which will be there a long time. Leave no trace means none. I prefer trying to leave the area better than I found it (remove some invasive plants I ID along the trail or clear fallen branches so they don't trip someone or me...).

campfire, fire ring, forst camp, natural coalescence

So what? Don't give a hoot about the forest, safety, or the law? Well you may care about the fines between $1000 and $10,000 per day for illegal fires. That's a lot of s'mores supplies you could buy plus high-end camping gear. Is the "coolness" of a fire worth that (on top of all the other risks)?? People have died. Many homes lost. Town wiped out. Lighting up is up to you when you're there, so choose wisely.

alpine forest, natural coalescence

Enjoy the beauty of our forests while there and we have them, and be safe!


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