How To Enjoy Campfires and Bonfires Safely
How to avoid toxic fumes, burning down the forest and other campfire safety tips for enjoying stress-free outdoor fires.
Fires are a constant conundrum for me.
We camp a lot, and the warmth, light and nostalgia of a fire makes my husband so cheery. But living in fire-prone regions for most of my life, and having family members whose homes almost burned down in wildfires, made me super focused on fire safety. I’m also concerned about the environmental and health impacts of burning wood.
Put all that together, and I’m not exactly the life of the party around campfires and bonfires. But my worries led us to finding creative, safe and responsible ways to enjoy wood-burning fires that satisfy everyone’s needs.
Here are some must-dos to safely enjoy campfires and bonfires, gleaned from personal experience and the pros at the National Fire Protection Association.
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Make Sure It’s Legal to Burn
Check with your local fire department to make sure wood fires are legal and what restrictions might be in place, like the minimum distance they can be from structures. Many places also initiate temporary burn bans when fire danger or pollution levels are high.
Use the Right Fire Pit
We’ve found most fire pits in campgrounds are unnecessarily large. Smaller fire rings and pits are less apt to get out of control. Plus, they burn less wood, which saves money and reduces the environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions.
We DIY’d our fire pit, comfortable for four people, from an 18-quart ceramic-coated canning pot. We drilled holes around the bottom of the side walls, allowing air to fan the flames for efficient combustion. It also has a lid, which we use to quickly tamp down flames if it gets windy. To prevent ground damage, we place several fire-safe bricks underneath.
If you’re using bricks or rocks for your ring, make sure they’re fire-resistant. If rock splinters start flying, put out the fire immediately. This actually happened to us once, so I can confidently say it’s zero fun to have rock shrapnel flying about!
Consider a Smokeless Fire Pit
If you have the budget, stainless-steel smokeless fire pits are one of the easiest ways to start and contain a fire. They keep smoke to a minimum and are relatively easy to clean and transport. Plus, they look nice. Some also come with a lid for safety.
For entertaining and backyard fires, we love our Solo Stove. If it’s particularly chilly where you live, consider their optional heat deflector. Breeo also makes some good smokeless fire pits. Or try Ignik‘s propane-fueled portable FireCan.
Plan for Wind and Sparks
Clear at least a several foot radius around the pit of any debris that could catch fire, like dry grass, leaves, pine needles, sticks and shrubs. Clear more from any areas downwind.
- Never build a fire under tree branches that sparks could ignite.
- Never burn on windy, dry days.
- Consider using a spark shield to keep embers from escaping.
- Build rocks or bricks up higher on the windy side, which protects the fire from the wind and radiates heat toward you for extra warmth.
- Consider putting up a visual/physical barrier around the fire to keep kids, pets and drunk adults from stumbling into it.
Choose Wood Wisely
“Using the wrong type of firewood is a common mistake,” says Jonathan Miller, co-founder of Breeo. “Not only can burning things like treated or painted wood release harmful chemicals, but it’s simply not a strong fuel for a bonfire.”
Kiln-dried wood is the best. Seasoned hardwoods like oak, cedar and hickory are particularly good because they burn cleaner, longer and hotter than soft woods like pine and aspen, though a little soft wood kindling makes starting a fire a lot easier.
Woods to avoid include:
- Alder, poplar and willow;
- Rotten, damp or moldy wood, which will create excessive smoke and popping embers;
- Driftwood, painted wood and treated wood, because the fumes are poisonous.
Don’t Use Accelerants
If you need help starting the fire, use a good fire-starter stick or lighter fuel made for this purpose. Steer clear of gasoline or other accelerant flammables. Too often lead to burn injuries, out-of-control fires and noxious fumes.
Don’t Burn Newspaper or Cardboard
Paper products tend to make large flying embers. Instead, use a fire starter or a small bit of tightly twisted newspaper.
Also, build a good base with ample kindling. That will help you establish a hot coal-bed, which will burn larger logs more effectively and lessen smoke.
Don’t Burn Plastics and Chemicals
The health risks of this are obvious, but plastics and chemicals are hiding in many items you might not realize. These include dryer lint, food packaging with shiny ink, glossy magazines, pressed woods including butcher block, varnished furniture and clothing made with synthetic fibers.
Supervise All Fires
“Assign someone to supervise the flames at all times to prevent the fire from getting out of control and keep kids and pets from standing too close,” says Miller. Equip the supervisor with proper protective clothing, including a fire-resistant glove, long-handled poker tool, shovel, closed-toe shoes and eye protection. Also, always keep a bucket of water or hose nearby.
Put It Out Cold
If you’re camping, leave your ashes cold to the touch. Otherwise, embers can easily reignite hours or even days later.
To extinguish the fire completely, stir a substantial amount of water deep into the ashes. Don’t just cover embers with dirt. That actually keeps them alive, waiting for a stiff wind to uncover them.
If you’ve been enjoying a fire in your yard, wait until embers are cool before disposing of them in a fireproof container, like a metal bin with a lid dedicated to this purpose. Avoid placing hot ashes in trash cans or near flammable materials.