How-to: Construct an eco-conscious campfire
By CG Lifestyles & People Editor Neal Patten
Eleven years ago both of my parents left their jobs in order to set off on a new adventure – owning and managing a weekend campground. We purchased the 400-acre, Southwest Wisconsin property in 2001. This year was our twelfth camping season (although the 39th year the park has been open). My respect for the natural world was nurtured growing up in such a beautiful area.
When I chose to go to Ohio University, I did not start out in environmental journalism. Over the last three years, however, the ‘bubble’ of my fairly idyllic childhood popped. Owning your own lake is a fascinating experience: local biologists study our population of cricket frogs, we are registered as a fish hatchery and therefore stock the lake ourselves, the Department of Natural Resources visits to ensure there are no invasive aquatic species growing – we are essentially the mayors of our own town. Having spent eight of my formative years on a patch of land where my family was in complete control of the cleanliness and ecosystems – I was naïve about the environmental issues impacting our quality of life on earth. It was not until I moved to Athens I first heard about the concept of sustainability. Realizing how rare it is to own a large parcel of land, much less a lake, and the fact that so many citizens in this country are in power struggles over property rights, water quality, air pollution, toxic waste runoff – I was in disbelief! It sparked a radical change in my worldview and I felt a calling to inform the masses about how they were being taken advantage of, how they were taking advantage of this planet, and how change was possible for a better world. I hope one day to retire a successful, respected environmental journalist and return to my home – Lake Joy – and perhaps turn it into a commune or a fully “green” summer camp.
One of our primary concerns every summer is where firewood comes from. There is a beetle called the Emerald ash borer that was accidentally introduced to the U.S. in the 90’s. Since then, upwards of 100 million trees have been destroyed. The beetle eats through the nutrient-providing tissues, cutting off the life source for Ash trees. Within a year two-thirds of the tree will die and it will be fully dead within two years. The borer is moving across many states including Ohio and Wisconsin. There are other campgrounds that have already lost their entire Ash tree population. At Lake Joy, we have had to mandate that no wood be brought into our campground from further than a 50-mile radius. We are always afraid, however, that a camper – who does not comprehend the devastating abilities of this pest – will ignore our rules and bring in wood housing the beetle.
In addition to our worries about the Emerald ash borer, this year we had to institute a campfire ban from late June through late July. Due to the extreme heat and drought that began mid-June, we managed less than .02 inches of rain over a three-week period. The DNR raised the fire danger level to “extremely high” – just below their highest danger rating. It was our only fire ban thus far in twelve camping seasons. Even so, it made many campers irate who felt that they had paid for a ‘full camping experience’ and not being allowed to build campfires infringed upon what they had paid for. We had campers demand refunds and others who went ahead and had fires anyways (although we were quick to put them out). Thankfully there was enough rainfall in late July that we lifted the ban and happily welcomed back the roast weenies.
My family camped for many years in a travel trailer before we became campground managers. Ironically we camped at Lake Joy in ’97, years before we ever dreamed it would one day be our home. This Friday when I will take to the road for my eleven-hour journey back to Athens, I will be tenting overnight in Indiana. Having been on both ends of camping – the camper and the campground manager – I understand well how some rules that may seem pointless or killjoys are in place for extremely important reasons.
It is for this reason that for this final summer edition how-to I will offer some tips for constructing eco-conscious campfires:
1. Follow the rules
Call ahead to the state park or campground where you will be staying. Ask them what their rules are regarding fires. Is your wood safe for transport? Do they currently have any burning restrictions? Be gracious and obey these rules. Park rangers and campground managers do not want to spoil your fun – but more importantly they do not want to spoil the landscape. Some parks may require you have a campfire permit to ensure you understand fire safety, as well as to keep tabs on the numbers of fires throughout the park.
2. Choose your location wisely
If you are a traditional camper, you are likely going to stay in a campground or state park where sites have designated above-ground fire rings or in-ground pits. However if you like to rough it, then you will need to build your own space to burn. If you plan to dig a pit, it should be around six to eight inches across and a foot deep. Line the bottom with stones, or several inches of gravel. Accompanying either with sand or dirt will help to prevent the fire from affecting the roots below the pit. If you are building a ring – make a circle out of stones on bare ground or loose rock, not grass. Fill in gaps and surround the stones with soil. Do not build fires at the base of steep hills, as fires are eager to burn uphill. Keep a ten-foot radius between your pit/ring and anything combustible (dry grass, fallen leaves, bushes, pine needles, your tent). Make sure to build your fire on the flattest ground possible and also, look up! Be aware of low-hanging branches that could ignite if a flurry of sparks bursts into the sky. If you are using a pit that already has ash in it – clear out as much as possible. Logs sinking into old ash can be deprived of enough oxygen to burn healthily. Burning on a rock outcrop may seem safer but it will scorch the stone, leaving a soot scar for years – so avoid building fires on solid rock surfaces.
3. Keep it small
While the remaining DNA of our caveman ancestors can sometimes ignite pyromania within us, building gigantic bonfires is both unnecessary and just plain dangerous. When building your firewood stack (I am partial to the teepee method) keep it below the rim of the ring/pit or only a little above. Logs shift and fall when burning and if you have stacked them towering over the ring/pit – they could roll into dry grass or other foliage after collapsing. Pack warm clothes so that a big fire isn’t necessary. Fires should be for relaxing, cooking and to add a kiss of warmth your sleeping bag/sweater just cannot provide. It should not be your outdoor furnace!
4. Never, ever, ever, ever leave a fire unattended
Do not leave your fire’s side to go foraging for more wood, or to go relieve yourself by the stream – anything can happen when you are not looking and by the time you return to your campsite, it could be too late. At my campground this summer (during the burn ban) a woman left her fire burning when she went to bed. Her children’s tent was a few feet away and she had her trailer awning just inches from being directly over top the pit. My mom happened to glance out her window at 2am and see the fire. It kept emitting embers into the air and her awning nearly caught fire. If it hadn’t been for my mom’s chance look outside, who knows what could have happened? There is nothing so important you should walk away from an open flame and do not underestimate the probability of fires suddenly becoming out of control.
5. Be prepared
Always keep a bucket of water or sand at the ready near the fire, just in case.
6. Only you can prevent…
A minimum half hour before your planned departure from your camping area, douse the fire with water. If you built your own fire, also soak the stones to help cool off trapped heat. Pour some sand or dirt into the wet ash and mix it around thoroughly. If you have ashed coals, put on thick gloves and crush the coals by hand. Even if a fire has mostly died down and only one pitiful log is still faintly growing red, the right gust of air can breathe life back into the flame. Time and air are not going to ensure your fire is kaput, you are the only insurance.
7. Choosing wood
Campgrounds, even if they are rustic, are not likely to offer enough suitable wood to build a campfire due to their popularity. So in those cases, bring your wood. Many vendors will have state-certified wood that has been inspected for its safety and any invasive species, but do not rely on their vocal assurance – ask to see their certification license to be sure. If you are in the wilderness, do not go off hacking down trees. Trees that are still alive will contain water and sap – they will take a long time to ignite and will not burn well. So let them live! Instead, look around for old, dry wood. Test sticks by trying to break them; it should be a healthy clean snap. Anything that just bends will also be too healthy yet to burn well. When collecting wood, go for a long walk – spreading yourself out over a fifteen to twenty minute walking area. Collecting too much wood from one area can alter the habitat in unforeseen ways. Also, do not take large logs – the diameter of your wood does not need to be larger than your arm to provide you with a proper fire. Also, never burn leaves – dead or alive – they create especially pungent white smoke that will alter the taste of your food and linger on your clothes. It is also the polite thing to do to re-distribute your unused wood into the forest, not leave it at the campsite for whoever next may happen along.
8. Prevent pollution
Ever wonder why we don’t just incinerate all of our landfills if we are running out of space for garbage? The majority of the products we buy today are created from a soup of chemicals and substances. Although “safe” in the physical form, they become toxic when vaporized. Do not burn any plastics, metals, colored cardboard or “treated” wood. You will be releasing harmful chemicals into the air. Take your trash with you and dispose of it properly, burning it is pollution not solution. Also, if you smoke cigarettes, be sure to always extinguish the butt completely and then take it with you. They can take up to five years to degrade and leech chemicals that are harmful to plants and wildlife. Cigarette butts are my number one peeve when cleaning up litter at Lake Joy.
As an assistant manager at my family’s campground I have learned the importance of camp rules. Between the California wildfires, which have massacred seven million acres (the most since annual records began in 1960) and the national drought, we have witnessed firsthand the brutality of summer heat. While there are many things my parents can control at our lake from the water quality to using electric work vehicles, there are some things we must leave to the respect and common sense of our campers. Follow these eight tips to keep your next camping trip safe and the forest intact for the next adventurer.
I hope you all had a restful, beautiful summer. Good luck with your first week of classes. Happy fall semester!