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9 Tips for Building a Safer Fire

A few weeks ago I wrote about several options for starting a fire, but I didn’t cover fire safety, which should have been topic number one. Nothing is more important when discussing the how’s and why’s of fire building than doing so safely. Therefore, here are nine tips to consider before striking that spark!

General Tips

Drought – always check with the Forest Service to see if a fire ban or other precautions are in place. Hot, dry weather multiplies the risk of forest fires – call the Ranger District in the area you’ll be visiting if you’re in doubt as to whether fire is allowed. You don’t want to be the cause of this:

High Park Fire, photo by US Dept of Agriculture

Wind – this is common sense – if there’s wind, don’t light a fire. Wind can pick up sparks, carry them even hundreds of yards away, and start a fire unbeknownst to you.

Have a plan in case your fire gets out of control – the above-mentioned wind can come up suddenly, especially in the mountains. Always have extra water, a shovel, a fire extinguisher, or another method nearby which you can access quickly if needed.

Never leave fire unattended – if you leave camp for a wheeling day trip or a hike make sure your campfire is completely out before you leave. Then wait a few minutes, and check it again. Last year on one camping trip we put out our campfire before we left for home by dousing it with all remaining water (there was quite a bit). We were sure it was out, but we waited a few minutes and as my husband was checking it again, the wind came up and a tiny spark ignited some dry vegetation outside the fire ring. Talk about a good lesson in thoroughly putting out a fire! We grabbed shovels and started hoisting piles of dirt in, on, and around the fire ring until we were sure no sparks were left to escape. Lesson learned: now, when we think our fire is out, we do a little bit more to make sure.

Specific Tips

Don’t build your fire too close to your shelter as sparks may ignite your temporary home. Then you’d really have to rough it!

Don’t build your fire next to old logs or fallen trees, or under an overhanging branch or leaves. Sparks and the heat from your fire can dry these out and ignite them, even smoldering for several days (well after you’ve packed up camp).

Bring a rake to clear the area. We’ve found from experience that a regular ol’ landscaping rake is super useful at camp. Not only can you clear an area for your tent (think, no rocks or sticks under your sleeping mat … ahhhhhh!), but you can clear an area for a fire ring, if there isn’t already one established. Rake away all brush and leaves that could ignite and cause an unwanted fire. Forget your rake? Don’t use your hands to clear away leaves and brush as you could get bitten by an insect or snake. Use your feet (assuming your footwear is appropriate) or a branch instead.

Use existing fire rings if available. Often dispersed camping areas will already have a fire ring or fire pit established. Use those to avoid further disruption to the area, and place your shelters accordingly. (Bonus: using a fire ring also better protects your fire from bursts of wind).

If building a fire ring, choose hard, dry, un-layered/non-porous rocks. Layered rocks (such as sandstone) or wet rocks can split or even explode when heated.

Do you have any fire safety tips to share? Comment below and stay safe out there!

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