The following appeared in the 2021 Jul/Aug issue of Adirondac Magazine

Campfires are an integral part of many peoples’ outdoor experience. They’re an opportunity to gather with family and friends, to catch up and connect. Campfires help take off the evening chill and radiate a glow of light. You might even be brave enough to cook over a campfire—definitely one of my favorite summer activities.

Whatever the reason for having a campfire, it’s important to be responsible with it, especially on public lands. Each year, campfires are the cause of extensive wildland fires and habitat destruction, so learning how to manage one responsibly is really important.

So let’s go through a mental checklist before we decide to build a campfire:

  • Is a campfire legal? Check with the local land manager to see if one is even allowed where you are camping. In some places, like the Central Zone of the High Peaks Wilderness in the Adirondack Park, campfires are prohibited in order to help protect the forest.
  • Is it safe? There are times of the year when vegetation might be very dry and susceptible to igniting easily. Those aren’t the best times to start a campfire.
  • Is water at hand? That will enable you to extinguish your fire completely.
  • Is there plenty of fuel in the ecosystem? You might have experienced a campsite that is completely devoid of woody debris. Everything on the ground and less than eight feet in the air has been burned. This might not be a place for a campfire. Woody debris is important to forest ecosystems, decomposing and helping build soils for trees and other vegetation to grow.
  • Can my group be responsible with fire? Are your companions reliably cautious? If not, reconsider. If you decide against a campfire there are lots of alternatives: warm layers, cooking over a camp stove, bringing a headlamp, and simply enjoying the night sky.

Many impacts accrue from merely collecting firewood. If you are in an area where you can bring your own firewood, make sure you aren’t transporting it more than fifty miles. Transporting firewood can spread destructive forest pests, like the emerald ash borer, so use local firewood.

When we teach fire building, we always talk about the “Four D’s” of wood-gathering: dead, down, dinky, and distant.

  • Not only will dead wood burn better; cutting down live trees is an easy way to really disturb an area.
  • You also want the wood down on the ground. Dead standing trees are great habitat for animals, so we want to leave those.
  • We want the size of the wood to be dinky, the size of your wrist or smaller, so that the fire stays an appropriate size and burns completely to ash.
  • Distant means spread out when you are collecting firewood, so that some gets left in the ecosystem to decompose.

Finally, it’s really important that you not leave your campfire until it’s completely out. Every year there are stories of poorly extinguished or unattended campfires that cause wildland fires. When is your fire completely out? When it’s cold to the touch. Pour water on your fire and stir it, making sure that it is completely out before you leave it.

By taking these steps you will be practicing responsible campfire-making and will help protect our beautiful public lands into the future.