Although abandoned campfires cause plenty of wildfires in the high county, it’s a different story in the desert. Here are six ways you can accidentally start a wildfire.
Every weekend, dozens of campers fail to put out their fires in Arizona.
The reason? They don’t know any better.
Most people assume that if the flame is gone, so is the fire, said Cody Lundin, a survival instructor and founder of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott.
But it doesn’t work like that.
Lundin, who can start a fire with sticks or an ember the size of a grain of rice, said fire safety is a lot like gun safety, only nobody teaches fire safety. Fire is up for grabs. Anyone can buy matches, or a lighter, build a campfire and walk away, and so every weekend is Russian roulette in the forest.
“We don’t do that with drugs, we don’t do that with driving, we don’t do that with firearms,” he said. “But we do that with fire.”
The problem is not that people make fires, Lundin said. The problem is most people don’t know much about building a fire, much less how to put one out.
“If you know how to properly make a fire you know how to put it out,” Lundin said.
Fire needs three things: ignition, fuel and oxygen, which Lundin refers to as the fire triangle. Assembling those things can be fairly simple for the average camper, but managing fuel is more complex, and can be critical to how the fire behaves.
Soft wood, like pine, burns down to ash quicker. So does small wood.
Hard woods like oak and juniper make hotter coals and take longer to burn out.
It’s important to remember that by the time you leave a site, one way or another, those embers either need to be ash, or cold to the touch.
Hot coals are great for cooking and for heat, but as the night wears on, you can still get plenty of heat, and burn the embers down by adding smaller fuel.
Ultimately, “the easiest way to put out a fire is to stop adding wood,” Lundin said.
‘They think the fire’s out’
Even then, the process of putting the fire out is only beginning.
Lundin said he watches in his classes how people react when there’s no visible flame.
“They think the fire’s out.”
But it’s not. It’s a pile of embers, and all it needs is a stiff wind to become a fire again.
The wind, which carries oxygen, pushes a human ignition source into surrounding fuel, reconnecting the fire triangle, Lundin said.
Putting dirt on a fire doesn’t really help much.
“When people do try to put out a fire, one of the most common things they do is put dirt on it,” he said. But dirt doesn’t cut off the flow of oxygen, it slows it down.
That means the coals will last even longer, which is why this is also known as banking the fire, Lundin said, and “if you bank a fire, that makes the hot embers last longer. They think that’s good. That’s bad.”
Managing your campfire
Ultimately, the only way to tell if a fire out is to put your hand over it.
“If it’s hot, it’s not out. And the only way you figure that out is to put your hand over where you’ve had that fire,” Lundin said.
Pour water on it. Stir. Check. Check again. How long the process takes is largely a combination of time, water, size of fuel and kind of fuel. Those skills you use to manage a fire come in handy because the cooler the fire is, the easier it is to put out, which means it takes less water.
Another trick to use less water is make a mound out of the coals, poke a hole in the center, and pour the water inside.
Before you roast your marshmallows brush up on fire restrictions and proper safety.
“It looks like a volcano too, so the kids dig it,” Lundin said. You can also get an idea where the hot spots are.
“In all the courses I do we spend half an hour, 45 minutes cleaning up the fire pit. We’re crushing coals. We’re crushing the black stuff.”
Lundin said he has offered to teach fire safety courses in Arizona in the past, “and I’ve never had anyone take me up on it.”
So far this fire season, we’ve been lucky. But just about every summer, a wind blows, embers fly, a wildfire burns. Blowing embers sparked the biggest wildfire in Arizona history, the Wallow Fire, which burned more than 500,000 acres.
“It’s the uneducated users that are starting the fires,” Lundin said.
“It needs to be done correctly, or people can lose lives or property and everything else.”
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