As I briefly mentioned in our last post, a majority of wildfires are human in origin. While there's a plethora of ways that wildfires can be started by humans, much of it can be traced to improper management of controlled fire sources, such as a campfire or cigarette. Campfires are synonymous with camping, and as such, proper fire safety protocols need to be followed to ensure your small flame doesn't roar into a forest engulfing inferno. While it goes without saying that any sources of flame or spark should be totally extinguished, it may be difficult to determine when a camp fire is completely burned out, especially during daytime.
First, let's discuss the abilities of your potential campfire. Depending on where you stay, many camp sites will have provided fire pits, in which case any campfire should only be lit within the provided pit. More remote areas may not have fire pits, but will generally have a list of rules to follow when setting up your campfire. While these rules can vary from place to place, the general basis is the same. I will add that most parks will have rules against bringing outside firewood, and these rules should always be followed. Invasive pests that are not native to a certain region can travel on firewood from out of state, or even from a different location of the same state. Be sure to use only local sources for your fuel, whether that's gathered or purchased.
If you need to dig your own pit, make sure you're allowed to do so first and foremost. Checking with a park ranger or online before your trip should provide the information you need. On commonly traversed trails, hikers have essentially established common stopping points, and it's likely you may stumble upon one of these. In those cases it's best to use those rather than setting up a brand new location. If you're off the beaten path, proper fire discipline becomes even more important.
You'll want to look for a clearing that you're able to dig a small hole for your fire pit. Be sure to clear a 10 foot area around the intended pit of any flammable debris or materials. This could also be your first step in gathering starting materials for your fire. Once you've dug your fire pit, surround the hole with rocks to help keep embers within the flame, this will also help to stop the fire from spreading outside of the intended area. Make sure to gather your fuel sources and store them a few feet away from the fire. For large logs, especially when gathered, it's best to split them into smaller pieces. This not only allows the fuel to burn more efficiently, it will also burn more quickly, making it easier to stifle the fire when the time comes.
Once you're ready to go, you can light your fire with whatever methods you have available. If you're using a match, you can simply toss the whole match in to ensure the materials are safely disposed of. An improperly discarded match can roar into a wildfire under the right conditions. Be sure to monitor the height and size of the fire, as you don't want it to grow out of your control. Adding excess fuel is also a great way to create more embers you're able to handle. It's not uncommon for a stronger ember to arc out of the firepit, in which case you can quickly stamp it out before anything can catch. This is a big reason why you should never leave a fire unattended, as policing the embers is very important to preventing accidental wildfires.
When it's time to pack it in for the night, be sure the fire is fully extinguished before turning in. Use water and a stick to break apart embers, but be careful not to push an ember under the ash, as it will still maintain heat. It's significantly easier to see the heat of the coals under the night sky, but during the day time you can check this by feeling the heat still emanating from the embers. Be careful not to get too close, but if the heat is noticeable a distance away, there's still some work to do.