Recreating responsibly includes campfire safety: 4 easy steps to keep your campfire from turning into a wildfire

Beth Ipsen
Sign showing high fire danger
Recreating responsibly includes campfire safety.

In Alaska 2010-2020, 59% of the more than 3,000 wildfires threatening lives, property, and natural resources in Alaska were human caused – and preventable. Unfortunately, the one bear you won’t find on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management is Smokey, so it’s up to all of us to know what’s allowed before lighting camp or warming fires on public lands.

Here are some simple steps you can take to help prevent your campfire from turning into a wildfire while enjoying your outdoors adventure.

Know before you go

Before starting that campfire, consider whether campground, area or event rules allow it. Even the best intent, like digging a fire pit, can be prohibited due to archaeological or other concerns.

Rules can vary based on location and perceived risk. For example, the BLM’s Campbell Tract in the heart of Anchorage does not allow campfires due to population density and other factors, while the BLM-managed White Mountain National Recreational Area north of Fairbanks doesn’t allow campfires within 25 feet of trails.

Any of these areas are also subject to additional restrictions during periods of high fire danger, like during the busy 2019 fire season, so it’s always a good idea to contact the Alaska Interagency Fire Information Office at (907) 346-5511 before heading from backyard to backcountry. You can also check akfireinfo.com for temporary fire restrictions on BLM-managed lands.

In addition, fireworks are never allowed on any federal in Alaska.

Know the CODE

When camp or warming fires are allowed, following four simple steps will help keep you and others safe. The acronym CODE can help you remember them:

  • Choose your campfire site carefully
  • Ownership – you are responsible for every fire you start.
  • Decide if the fire can be safely controlled in the current weather and wind conditions.
  • Extinguish the fire before leaving.

Choosing your campfire site wisely is the first step to preventing disaster. For example, a gravel or sand bar is an excellent place to have a campfire due to the absence of flammable vegetation and its proximity to water. Take these simple steps to prevent your campfire from escaping before you even start arranging your wood for a fire:

  • Look for existing fire rings or grates and use these when available.
  • Choose a level area with no overhanging branches.
  • Clear away all vegetation, like spruce needles, if not in a ring.
  • Circle the ring with rocks or a portable metal fire ring.
  • Have a shovel and water close by.

Taking ownership of your fire, and responsibility for everyone and everything it could potentially impact helps ensure many more trips to come. It’s up to all of us on Team Public Lands to look out for each other.

Once you decide if the fire can be safely controlled in the current weather and wind conditions, pile your firewood upwind from the fire and 10 feet away to prevent a wind-blown ember from catching it on fire. Remember that you don’t need a large fire visible from the international space center to keep warm or cook food during your outing. Keep it small and manageable, and never leave your fire unattended.

Finally, completely extinguish the fire “dead out” before you crawl into your tent for the night or leave the area. This means ensuring it is out cold, and any rocks used are dispersed before leaving.

The best way to do this is slowly add water to put out the flames. Stir and scrape to cool and separate the coals. Then add more water until the steaming stops. Wave the back of your hand above the fire to feel for heat. Continue to add water until you feel no heat. Stir the ashes and coals to make sure there aren’t any hot embers hiding beneath the surface. Only when it’s cool to the touch can you consider the fire out.

Know who to ask

Keeping these tips in mind will help you enjoy your outdoor adventure. Visit akfireinfo.com or call the Alaska Interagency Fire Information Office at (907) 356-5511 for current conditions.

Now get out and enjoy your public lands in Alaska