Camping With Wildfires: What You Need to Know

wildfires in the west
SQF Complex. Photo by United States Forest Service.

The images shown of the western United States are nothing short of devastating as massive wildfires burn through forests, scrub, and desert. It’s been more than a month since fire first broke out in places like Colorado and California, and today they continue burning up the west coast and into Washington and Oregon.

New reports show the air quality in these regions is some of the worst in the world, and there are even reports on the smoke reaching to places as far as Europe. As of mid-September, the National Interagency Fire Center says more than 4.7 million acres have burned as firefighters from all over the country and world respond to help get it all under control. The fires are fueling renewed calls to act on climate change initiatives and policies, as many worry it will only get worse.

On average, wildfires cost more than a billion dollars a year, and this year is shaping up to be one of the most expensive ones ever. While it is true that this year is more intense than others, many agencies who oversee our public lands are used to dealing with wildfires, and how to balance those fires with protecting natural resources and keeping visitors safe. Part of that balancing act is making sure that campers aren’t starting wildfires of their own.

Preventing Human-Caused Wildfires

“It’s really just the simple steps of doing the homework beforehand,” says Sheryl Page, a Fire Protection Specialist with the Forest Service. “And just being mindful of what they’re doing when they’re at the campsite that they’re visiting.”

Page covers the Rocky Mountain Region of Colorado, which saw a few fires back in August. Page says that recent moisture has helped keep things a little more quiet in the state, which gave her a few moments to talk with us during this busy time.

When it comes to how wildfires start and spread, different factors, like the kind of plant life and type of terrain in different regions, play a role. In Colorado, lightning causes the majority of wildfires, but the number one human-related cause of wildfire is campfires. Across the country, more than 60,000 fires are started by people each year.

Forest officials have seen a spike in fire-related outdoor issues this year with COVID-19 pushing more people outside to recreate and explore. “We’re seeing a lot of abandoned campfires and also just a lot of people out,” says Page. “So, we’ve seen some different fire causes such as dragging chains or parking in dry grass.”

Campfire safety
Stillwater Pass Dispersed Camping | Grand Lake, CO – Photo by: Van-Tramp

Campfire Safety

So what should campers do before heading out to their campsite?

Start by checking local regulations. Are there any fire bans? Are gas or charcoal stoves allowed? Are there any fires burning in the area, or does the weather create the potential for a high risk of igniting a fire? You can find this information on agency websites for local law enforcement, state fire marshals, or the state’s office of emergency management.

If fires are allowed where you are, be sure to build and put out your fire responsibly. Use only designated or established fire rings, rake back any flammable items nearby that could alight, and never leave your fire unattended. New a refresher course on how to build and extinguish a campfire? Check out this quick video from USFS Fire Prevention Technician Brian McCloud.

When you are done with your fire, make sure that it’s totally out before going to bed for the night or leaving your campsite. “If it’s too hot to touch with the back of your hand, it’s too hot to leave it,” says Page. “That’s kind of our tip there.”

She also says something as simple as routine vehicle maintenance and smart parking can make a difference during wildfire season. For example, fire blowouts can spark a fire, so check your tire pressure regularly. When choosing a place to park, avoid parking over tall, dry grass that can easily ignite by a hot exhaust pipe.

“If they’re hauling a trailer,” Page adds, “Make sure the chain’s not dragging because those sparks do cause fires.”

For more information, check out beoutdoorsafe.org.

Planning for Evacuations

Another great idea? Planning for your safety. In the most recent wildfires, a number of national forests had evacuations where both residents and visitors had to pack up and get out of the area. This is why officials recommend you research where you’re going beforehand and learn the roadways so you can safely evacuate if you need to.

“My thoughts are if you can see it and you don’t feel comfortable, get out,” says Page. “Even though there might not be evacuations, just play it safe. That’s probably the number one thing.”

If you’re camped in relative proximity to a wildfire, Page also recommends having a bag ready to go in the event of evacuations, as there may not always be time to hitch up if a fire is moving quickly or changes directions. Pack essential items like:

  • Car keys
  • Prescription medicines
  • Glasses
  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Pet food

Campground Closures

This year’s fires are likely to cause the closure of a number of campgrounds, either for safety reasons or to allow the landscape to heal.

The immediate aftermath of a wildfire leaves a high risk of damaged trees falling or splintering, and health concerns such as air quality and blowing ash. The CDC even has guidelines on precautions that should be taken in the aftermath of a wildfire.

Another factor for campgrounds is possible fire damage to infrastructures like roads and buildings. “If it did burn a campsite it might have taken out some things we have like the vault toilets or other buildings,” says Page. “There might be some damage to that, so that might take some time to get those back up and running, so it all depends.”

As far as allowing the landscape to heal, that often depends on the type of vegetation found in the region. While some plants grow back quickly, others can take years (or longer!).

According to the U.S. Forest Service, fires in recent years have eaten so much of their budget they have been forced to reallocate money from other vital operations. By doing our part to prevent human-caused wildfires, we can make a difference in keeping our favorite camping areas open, intact, and available for years to come.