Starting Campfires Safely, Without Starting a Wildland Fire


Every summer we see major wildland fires that are started by campers.  Often these are people from the city with no experience in the backcountry.  They set up a ring of rocks like those that they see in the movies and light a campfire and let it burn out.  In the morning, they leave thinking the fire is extinguished.

The problem is that they don’t understand what duff is.  Duff is the layer of decomposing organic materials lying below the litter layer of freshly fallen twigs, needles, and leaves and immediately above the mineral soil.  Duff can smolder for days after a fire.  Duff can be tightly packed, so they clear the leaves and twigs off not realizing that there can be several inches of organic material between their fire and the soil.  Duff will be heaviest under forest areas where the leaves decay into it.  It normally is not as thick in grasslands.  The drier and deeper the duff layer, as well as the drier the soil, the more susceptible this fuel bed is to fires. Fire will smolder for days and even weeks within a dry and deep duff layer.

Duff covered in a fresh layer of leaves and light debris
Deep dry duff








When you are preparing to light a campfire, make sure all flammables are clear for at least 6 to 8 feet around the campfire.  This means clear the ground of all the loose debris and duff.  Duff can sometimes be six inches or more in thickness.  And make sure there are no tree branches overhanging the area; they can catch fire more easily than you think.

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How about weather conditions?  Are there building clouds and rising winds.  An approaching storm can easily fan the smallest unprotected campfire out of control.  You may want to consider digging a Dakota Hole.  This will protect the campfire from wind and make it easy to extinguish.

If you can always make sure there’s a shovel or something to dig with nearby, along with a few gallons of water. While water is preferred, dirt can keep things under control. Just be aware that coals can stay dangerously hot beneath a blanket of soil many hours after you’ve put the fire out.

Never leave a campfire unattended

Extinguish all fires by pouring water on them, stirring the ashes, and then applying more water. Repeat until the ashes are cool to the touch before you leave the site.  Be certain a campfire and its ashes are cold before you depart.  Don’t leave a smoldering fire in the duff.


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