How to Prevent Forest Fires

How to Prevent Forest FiresAs Smokey the Bear says: "Only you can prevent forest fires." Signs, commercials and admonishments--we hear it all the time. Every summer and fall, there are news stories from across the nation about fire storms destroying homes and taking lives, and the majority are human-caused. Even in developed campgrounds in a metal fire ring with a concrete pad, wildfires can start. Just a few simple steps will prevent a major conflagration. This is a checklist you can use with children to teach fire safety early in life.
 

Instructions

Difficulty: Easy

In a developed campground with metal fire ring

Things You’ll Need:
  • Shovel (one shovel for a developed campground; bring two for dispersed (remote) camping.
  • Bucket and source of water--either a lake, river, stream or water packed in, for fire suppression.
  • Poker (even a long stick will do)
  • Damp towel or blanket
  • "Duff" from the forest floor (See Step 3 in Section 1)
  • Thin, dry twigs (if you can snap it between your fingers with no effort, it's a "twig."
  • Dry sticks under 1 inch in diameter (measurements are not precise; if it can be snapped in your hands without effort, it's a "stick."
  • Increasingly thicker diameter branches of seasoned wood (if it takes force or has to be broken over your leg or with your feet, it's a branch)
  • Short segments of logs (if it needs a saw, hatchet or being slammed against a boulder to break, it's a log; if it needs a chain saw, it's too big for the fire ring)
 
Step 1
Fill the bucket with water, stick a towel in it and loosen dirt around the fire ring with the shovel. In most cases, it's not necessary to dig into the fire; just a surface scraping with the shovel can make for a decent size pile of loose dirt.
Step 2
Organize the fire. Place the tinder in the center of the fire ring. Avoid using plastic, coated papers or fast-food wrappers. Stick with the natural "duff" (fuzzy grasses, dried leaves and dry pine cone needles on the ground) when possible, otherwise use pure paper products, such as paper towel, newspaper and brown paper bags. Around the duff, place four thin, dry twigs in an overlapping square, like a log fence. Go up two to three layers so that the top row of the twigs is higher than the duff. Carefully lay more twigs with about 1/4- to 1/2-inch space between each across the top twigs in the square. Light the duff and tinder. You now have a kindling fire.
Step 3
When the top twigs ignite, lay two branches parallel to each other on opposite sites of the kindling fire, and then bridge the kindling fire with dry sticks. Keep the top of the fire below the rim of the fire ring, if possible.
Step 4
When adding larger and larger pieces of wood, do it slowly, carefully, and try to keep the flames from soaring and sparking high into the area.
Step 5
When it's time to leave the campsite unattended--even if just for a few minutes--the fire must be dead out. The Forest Service says that dead out means it's cool enough to put your hand near or on the ashes. Even if the fire appears not to have any glowing embers in the fire ring, it can still be burning. The only means of putting a campfire dead out is by cutting off its air flow--smothering the fire.
Step 6
With the water bucket, dole out the water in a constant pace, but not by pouring, over the hottest portions of the fire. Keep your face back from the hot steam that will form. Use a cup or even your hand as an oar to move the water into the hot spots. Take shovelfuls of dirt, and start from the center of the fire moving outward to cover the coals and embers under the flames. Use the poker to stir up the ashes, allowing the water to penetrate deeper into the fire. Continue alternating water and dirt. You are making a mud pie. When water no longer generates steam or hissing when applied, it has cooled. With the shovel, sprinkle a light covering of dry dirt.
Step 7
To keep the fire ring usable, once cooled, use the shovel to create a donut of the ash, dirt, and remaining wood around the interior perimeter of the fire ring.

In an undeveloped or dispersed campsite

Step 1
These instructions assume you have obtained necessary campfire permits, that fires outside developed campgrounds are permitted and that you have all of the tools and water, even though you may have to pack in your water if you're not camping on a running creek or other water source.
Step 2
First look for an area that has already been used for camping and may have an existing fire pit. It will save you setup time, and more important, it is environmentally responsible. Collect and surround the fire pit with large rocks to create an encirclement to keep flames from "crawling" or being blown out of the campfire. If the rocks are already surrounding a fire area and filled in with dirt, so much the better. If the fire pit is filled more than halfway with old ashes and dirt, use the shovel to clean it out, creating a deeper pit. The detritus can be kept in a pile nearby to use for smothering your fire.
Step 3
Clear an area at least 10 feet wide around the fire. Rake out leaves, twigs, duff and anything that could be dry tinder. If you are a smoker, this should be the only place at your campsite that you smoke.
Step 4
Organize the fire as described in Step 2 of Section 1 of this article.
Step 5
Ensuring a fire is dead out is crucial outside of a developed campground. Following Steps 5, 6 and 7 from Section 1 of this article, continue alternating water and dirt working to make a shallow mound over the fire. Later, if a new fire is needed, this mound can become the dirt pile to smother the next fire. Use a poker or the shovel to keep stirring up the ashes to let the dirt and water penetrate deep into the fire.
Step 6
Hold your hand to nearly touch the dirt and ashes. If any warmth at all is felt, apply more water or dirt to the hot spot. When the fire is cool, tightly tamp it down with a shovel.
 

Tips & Warnings

 
It can take more time to safely extinguish a fire than it does to start it.
 
Start the fire small. Deep in our primal memories is the joy of watching a bonfire blaze to the sky. It's not a prudent campground activity. You're building the fire for cooking or warmth, and the more controlled the blaze, the better it meets your needs--and the more fuel it saves.
 
Only place burnable trash in the fire--although this really should be avoided. Cans, bottles, batteries and some plastics do not burn and just become charred litter for the next campers. Batteries, plastics, any plastic-coated paper and other coated cardboard give off toxic fumes when burning. With the Murphy's law that smoke always follows you around the fire, it's an air pollution you would be advised to avoid.
 
• Avoid using dirty diapers in a fire at any time; you will be in for an unpleasant fragrance that seems to cling to the air. Used toilet paper burning is ill-advised as well.
 
If you have used large logs in the fire, be sure they are cool to the touch, and keep the logs within the fire ring or fire pit.
 
Remember to keep your firewood pile a safe distance from the fire so as not to have to contend with two campfires--one wanted and one not wanted. Keep your eyes on airborne sparks. If you used paper or other flammables in the fire, it's entirely possible for a large piece to be lifted by the heat and carried beyond the fire ring or cleared area. If a live spark lands on the ground, stomp it out, throw the wet towel on it and stomp on the towel, toss dirt on it, or otherwise smother it. If it starts to spread, use water, dirt and immediately call for assistance. Better to be embarrassed than blamed. If it is windy, keep the fire low in the fire ring. Even in a light wind, airborne sparks and embers can be carried dozens of feet from the fire ring or fire pit. If there is any warmth, any wisp of smoke or any hiss when water is applied, the fire is still alive. With the right wind, you could be responsible for starting a wildfire.
 
Remember to keep your firewood pile a safe distance from the fire so as not to have to contend with two campfires--one wanted and one not wanted.
 
Keep your eyes on airborne sparks. If you used paper or other flammables in the fire, it's entirely possible for a large piece to be lifted by the heat and carried beyond the fire ring or cleared area. If a live spark lands on the ground, stomp it out, throw the wet towel on it and stomp on the towel, toss dirt on it, or otherwise smother it. If it starts to spread, use water, dirt and immediately call for assistance. Better to be embarrassed than blamed. If it is windy, keep the fire low in the fire ring.
 
Even in a light wind, airborne sparks and embers can be carried dozens of feet from the fire ring or fire pit.
 
If there is any warmth, any wisp of smoke or any hiss when water is applied, the fire is still alive. With the right wind, you could be responsible for starting a wildfire.

Article Written By Eric Jay Toll

Eric Jay Toll has been writing since 1970, influenced by his active lifestyle. An outdoorsman, businessman, planner and travel writer, Toll's work appears in travel guides for the Navajo Nation, "TIME" and "Planning" magazines and on various websites. He studied broadcast marketing and management at Southern Illinois University.

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