For me, fall is hiking season. The weather gets cooler, spending the night in a tent becomes more pleasant, foliage explodes into color, and the weather in New England is usually spectacular.
With the cool weather, the use of campfires becomes much more common. Cooler nights mean warmth is pleasant (instead of suffocating). Cooler nights also create a perception that, somehow, fires are less likely. This is not true! In fact, usually Fall is a drier season than Summer. Fire safety is extremely important everywhere, so let’s review a few key strategies to great fall fire safety and responsible fire practices year round!
- Know the area
The most important part of fire safety is being prepared. Almost every wilderness/camping area has a big fire danger display board at the entrance, and it’s extremely important to follow those guidelines. Weather patterns change from place to place, so never assume that the fire risk where you are is the same as where you are going.
- Build a fire where fires have been built before
The most important aspect of building a fire is to burn where stuff has been burned before. Not only does this prevent more widespread ecological damage, but fires can actually spread underground. By reusing fire pits, you are ensuring that the fire stays in the pit and doesn’t continue to burn or spread underground. Sometimes, this isn’t an option, and if it’s not, be sure to follow the next few suggestions!
- Get your firewood from the ground
It’s important not to cut down existing trees, even if they are dead, to use for firewood. Dead trees provide important habitats for rodents and cavity nesting birds. Additionally, only build a fire in a place where there is sufficient wood for such a fire. Decaying organic matter is an important part of ecosystems, so the goal should be to have a fire without it being noticeable that you removed sticks from the surrounding areas.
- Use small logs
If you aren’t in your backyard, you don’t need to turn every fire into a towering inferno. Fires in the wild should be used primarily for cooking and warmth, and secondarily for making s’mores. Even if you have a big fire pit to utilize, use small sticks and keep the fire tame. Big logs don’t go out and will burn long after you retire to the tent, so why risk it? Small logs will burn through and be easy to dispose of, leaving less trace of your presence.
- Build a mound, don’t dig a pit
One of the biggest misconceptions about fire safety is that the safest place to have a fire is in a dirt pit. This is untrue! In fact, digging a pit can actually take away from fire safety. Fire and heat can travel underground into root systems and cause a fire far worse than one that started on the surface. If there isn’t already a pit dug and used, instead of digging a pit, build a fire mound. This protects the ground from scorch marks, and heat, and allows it to be easily disposed of when you leave camp the next morning. A “fire pan” made of aluminum foil can also work as a barrier between the fire and the ground and does a good job dissipating heat.
- Leave as little trace as possible
Whether you are having a fire in a pit or on a mound in the backcountry, try to leave as little trace as possible of your presence. Burn your wood all the way through, don’t leave half burned logs in a fire pit. In the backcountry, smash everything up as finely as possible and spread it out. Don’t leave the remnants of your time in the woods disturb the next person who comes across that spot.