It’s been a brutal summer for wildfires, and the season is just getting started. Even worse, a new report shows that 95 percent of the time, humans are to blame for these destructive burns. While some—like the Carr Fire, which burned more than 1,000 structures—result from accidents, others stem from pure human carelessness, like campers not heading burn bans, or not properly extinguishing their campfires.
Here’s the deal: With wildfires costing our country billions of dollars each year—plus the lives of firefighters and those who can’t evacuate fast enough, we have to be more careful when we camp. At this point, lighting a campfire is a privilege, not a right. And in order to earn that privilege, you have to know how to manage your flames.
First: Know when you can and can’t burn.
Before you head out, check with either local authorities or online to see if there’s a burn ban in effect. “There are a lot in California right now,” says Steve Silberberg, a Leave No Trace trainer and the owner of Fitpacking, a company that helps folks lose weight via backpacking trips. Also, if you can have a fire, keep in mind that these generally need to be kept to established fire rings. You also must buy your wood locally. Invasive species and diseases often hitchhike in on firewood.
Before you even begin to arrange your kindling, think about how big you want your fire to be.
This will determine how much water you need to put it out. Planning and making sure you have enough water to put it out is essential, says Aaron Webster, an interpretive specialist at Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington. “If you’re unexperienced, be extra cautious. This is the root of many outdoor mishaps—people are overconfident or assume everything will go as they imagine,” he adds. You can always add a log or two to a fire, but getting a blaze to chill out is stressful at best and fatal at worst.
“Get your water for extinguishing before you even begin burning,” Webster says. “You may need it sooner than you realize.” And get more than you think you might need. If you think you will need a gallon of water to put it out, have two on hand—just in case.
Stop stoking your fire at least an hour before you want to go to bed.
If you forget this step, you’ll have to work harder to put it out. In theory, you should put your campfire all the way out before you tuck in for the night, too, however Webster says that if you’re somewhere very, very damp—like where he works on the Pacific Coast—you may be able to go to bed with it still a little warm. That being said, you’ll sleep better and worry less if you put it out all the way.
Next, pour water onto the flames.
Then add dirt or sand. Then add more water. “Water, stir [with a stick], water, stir, water, stir, and more water, that’s about it for putting out a campfire,” says Silberberg. Add water until the campfire is cool enough that you can put your hand on the spot where it was and not get burned, he adds.
“Burial is not effective for putting out a fire,” adds Webster. “In the forest, it can keep smoldering and growing until it reaches something flammable like a tree. On the beach it can stay hot for many hours (or days) and can injure other beach goers.”