For many campers, some of our favorite memories involve campfires. Whether it’s swapping stories, sipping drinks, or making s’mores, there’s serenity in watching the moonrise amid a flickering firelight.
Campfires can also come with a great deal of risk. Campfire smoke can trigger short- and long-term health issues, including lung ailments, respiratory irritation, chronic bronchitis, and shortness of breath. Depending on the type of wood you’re burning, you may even be breathing in harmful gases.
But the biggest campfire hazards are related to wildfires. According to the National Park Service, humans cause about 85 percent of wildfires, in part due to campfires left unattended. Wildfires destroyed more than 10 million acres of land in 2020, an increase from the 7.5 million acres burned annually on average over the last decade.
Burn restrictions are now more prevalent throughout the Western U.S. and Canada during wildfire season, which, thanks to rapidly warming temperatures, now stretches to nearly 8 months of the year. According to The Guardian, “Wildfires are starting earlier, burning more intensely and scorching swaths of land larger than ever before. Risks for large, catastrophic fires like the Camp Fire that leveled the town of Paradise [California] in 2018 are rising.” The National Weather Service recommends that visitors have multiple escape routes planned if they’re traveling during wildfire season.
A debate is rising among the outdoor community: Is it time to ban the campfire tradition, at least in non-life-threatening situations or during peak fire season?
“Many counties are already doing this,” says Dr. Susan Prichard, a research scientist at the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, who has seen firsthand large wildfires start from campfires while living in the Pacific Northwest. “Given that fire seasons are getting longer and drier on average, I think this trend will continue and is likely wise,” she says.
Many campers and experts say no to an outright ban, but acknowledge that people should be more responsible.
“The U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service both do a great job of letting campers know about fire restrictions,” says Tony McDaniel, Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism spokesman. “Most established campgrounds have fire rings where visitors can more safely build a fire, but it’s up to the individual campers to do their own pre-trip research, know the restrictions in place, and abide by those restrictions.”
When entering a park or traveling through national forests, there’s often at least one sign indicating the current level of fire danger and whether fires are banned. A quick visit to the location’s website or a visitor center should give visitors the basic information needed.
Unfortunately, personal responsibility is often lacking. In San Bernardino National Forest, rangers found at least 18 illegal campfires over Independence Day weekend last year. During a 2-month span in 2020, firefighters responded to 19 escaped fires—fires that were left unattended and burned adjacent areas—while rangers took action on 75 other unattended or illegal campfires in Tahoe National Forest.
Anyone caught building or attending an illegal campfire could face fines ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 and potentially receive jail time, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Even when campfires are allowed, a blaze can quickly get out of hand, Prichard warns. “If it’s a windy day and there’s a chance that embers can hop out of a campfire ring and into nearby dry vegetation, it’s best to play it safe and forgo any campfire that day,” she says.
Before you start a campfire, here are a few questions to ask yourself.
- Are there any restrictions in place that would prevent me from building a campfire? If so, don’t build a fire.
- Do I actually need a campfire? Even when temperatures hover around 70 or 80 degrees, some campers will build a fire. In this case, reconsider if you really need the added heat.
- Is a fire ring provided where I can build a fire safely? If not, are there enough large rocks nearby where I can build my own, or, better yet, bring a portable fire pit? BioLite makes a fire pit with a metal-mesh body that traps most— but not all—embers. While it’s safer than a standard fire pit, it’s not allowed during a fire ban. Outland Living makes a propane fire pit that’s legal in some areas.
- Do I have enough water to safely extinguish the fire when it’s time to put it out or if it starts to get out of control? Even if the fire has mostly died down, you need to make sure it’s completely extinguished before heading back into your RV for the night.