How to SAFELY Enjoy a Campfire and Cooking Fire

For millennia, people have been drawn to fire for its warmth, security and usefulness.  Today, camp fires are often synonymous with camping.  Whether it’s a cooking fire to roast your favorite camp meal or roasting marshmallows over an evening campfire with family and friends, it can often be the highlight of a day at camp.

To get the most enjoyment out of your fire, it is important to do a little preparation up front.  The last thing a camper wants is to see someone get hurt or their personal belonging get burned through carelessness or accident.  Luckily, with a little forethought, you can prevent most fire incidents.

Here we can take a tip from the Boy Scouts of America who have an “outdoor Code” which says, in part, “… BE CAREFUL WITH FIRE— I will prevent wildfire. I will build my fire in a safe place and be sure it is out before I leave.”

The first step is to familiarize yourself of the policies for any open flame on the campground and be aware of any postings or warnings about high winds or high risk of fires each day.

Always know the emergency numbers to call in case of an out-of-control fire, including any after hours procedures.  Sometimes this might be a call to 911 but in other cases the campground has more immediate resources to handle an emergency so it’s important to ask the camp office ahead of time.

Prepare the spot so it can’t spread, won’t catch on clotheslines, won’t disturb your neighbors with either the heat or smoke. Camp chairs can melt or burn if left unattended near the fire as embers can fly 10 to 15 feet away.  Awnings, outdoor rugs, picnic table and anything flammable should be at least 15 to 20 feet away from the fire area.

Only use the fire pit provided be or allowed by your resort or campground.  Makeshift fire pits can be very dangerous.  The pits and areas provided by the campground are chosen specifically for safety.  IF you have any question about the fire area, types of fires allowed, ask the camp office.

Before you build a fire in the fire pit, make sure that it is clean and free from garbage or rocks.  Stones and rocks can shatter when super-heated as moisture trapped inside tries to expand and eventually bursts the stone apart.

Whenever possible, cover the fire pit with a metal grate.  If possible, a second grate can be placed on top of the first at a right angle to it so that it forms a grid that will stop more sparks and embers from flying out of the fire pit.

Always have enough water nearby to dowse the fire.  You should have at least 3 to 5 gallons of clean water within arm’s reach at ALL TIMES.  This water can be used for emergencies but also to soak the pit when you are leaving the fire area for any length of time.

Always have a pair of canvas or leather work gloves available to protect your hands if you need to put out a flame or ember.

Children are especially drawn to fire.  It can be mesmerizing and tempting to play with.  Make sure that you take the time to explain to any children at your site how to keep safe near the fire.  Children should NEVER be left alone near open fires.

If you are cooking with oil or fats have a container of baking soda (do NOT use flour) or sand as water will actually make an oil fire spread.  Ideally, a Class B Dry Chemical fire extinguisher near enough to grab easily, but not so close that it gets noticeably warm from the campfire.  

If a pan or griddle does flare up with a grease fire, your first step should be to simply cover it with a metal lid to suffocate the flames.  Do not use glass as it can shatter.  If that fails you can pour baking soda on it, but only if it is small enough.  It will take a good amount of baking soda to extinguish a large grease fire.  When applying the soda, try to pour it on the pan itself, not the top of the flames.

Only use the fire extinguisher as a last resort as it will contaminate any food in the area.

If you are using a gas grill or propane burner, take extra precaution and actually read those labels that are plastered on them- they really are there to save your life (and your possessions).  If a fire gets out of control and is near a propane tank, gas tank, or any highly flammable material, get away and get help immediately.  If ignited, propane tanks can easily shoot flames over 20 feet into the air, hot enough to melt the siding off a building 30 feet away!  When in doubt, call for help.

Never go to bed with a hot fire pit.  You should completely douse the fire and coals with water, stirring the water in so that the hot coals at the bottom of the pit get soaked.  This only takes a few minutes but will let you sleep well knowing that a stray ember or falling leaves or debris will not flare up unattended.

If you are leaving your site and will want a fire again when you return, it is best to fully extinguish the fire and restart it when you return.  One of the biggest reasons for out-of-control fires in campgrounds is from someone leaving “just for a few minutes”.  It only takes one spark to ruin the day.  If you must leave, ask a neighbor to stay watch by the fire until you return.

With a little planning, a campfire can be a wonderful addition to any day.  Be safe, have fun and enjoy!

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