Sarah Stirling | Campfires: when and where is it OK to light them?
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Campfires: when and where is it OK to light them?

Campfires: when and where is it OK to light them?

There is something primal about watching a campfire. Artificial light kills darkness; campfires illuminate it. The hypnotic glow creates the perfect story telling environment, too. In a world where most people are overconnected to tech and disconnected from nature, sitting around a fire is one of the few easy lifelines we have to our roots. It seems a shame to be the Health & Safety person asking, “Yes, but when is it safe and legal to light one?” But nowadays, with the doom of climate change looming over us, most of us are thinking more about our environmental impacts. This year there have been terrible droughts and wild fires around the world. So it’s also a topical and very important question.

This campfire question came to light recently when I was asked to be the Outdoor Consultant on a wonderful guide to adventure for kids. I thought about campfires. Here was a fantastic opportunity to pass on a real love for the outdoors – both enjoying it and taking on a responsibility to care for it. Kids generally love campfires. But everything I knew about when and where you could light them was gut instinct from experience, so I needed to check my facts first. Wanting to teach kids is often really helpful, isn’t it, because it challenges you to consider why you do things, instead of mindlessly doing.

Where would I personally light one? 

I got a pen and started with what I thought I knew.

  1. I definitely consider campfires a rare treat when the situation allows, rather than a right or necessity
  2. At campsites that allow fires
  3. On a really quiet and secluded beach because there’s little danger of it spreading and it leaves no trace if you clear up afterward – i.e. doesn’t scorch the ground
  4. If it wasn’t a really quiet and secluded beach, I would bring my own raised fire pit and have a fire in there
  5. Occasionally if I found a fire circle that someone else had used and scorched the ground anyway (not sure on the ethics of this, thinking about it, but I know I have done it)
  6. I would always try to leave no trace

The rules and ethics in England and Wales

Next I called Adam Vasey, New Forest National Park Ranger, who told me: “While there are some ‘Open Access’ areas of countryside in England and Wales where we have a ‘Right to Roam’ off the paths – in National Parks, forests etc – all this land is owned by someone. All these areas have different regulations, but as a general rule, lighting fires on private ground (even Open Access areas) is discouraged and can even be classed as an illegal activity because of the risks of fires spreading like, well, wildfire. An official guideline is: ‘Only light small campfires when you have the express permission of the landowner, normally at a campsite or some such, and remember that lighting fires can be extremely dangerous, resulting in the destruction of habitat and property etc.’ I love campfires and mostly choose campsites based on whether they allow fires (some have raised fire pits you can use).”

The rules and ethics in Scotland

In Scotland it’s slightly different, Ben Dolphin, a seasonal ranger in the Cairngorms, told me. The ‘Scottish Outdoor Access Code’ is founded on responsible access and, while this does allow for fires in SOME circumstances, it clearly states you should ‘Never light an open fire during prolonged dry periods or in areas such as forests, woods, farmland or on peaty ground’. In general the Code strongly discourages fires, saying where possible use a stove. If you do light a fire, keep it small, leave no trace and consider yourself responsible if it gets out of control. 

The problem, explains Ben, is that a lot of people think they know what they are doing with fires. In Scotland, he says, and especially in the glens, much of the ground is peat, which can burn very well. He regularly approaches people who are having fires, and hears the explanation, “It’s OK, we know what we are doing, we built this ring of stones and have a litre of water.” But the ring of stones does nothing, he says, apart from perhaps marking out an area kids shouldn’t cross, and preventing logs rolling out – the heat still burns downwards and then burns outwards underground. Wild fires frequently start this way. Ben also said that it has taken 20-30 litres of water to put out even a small camp fire on dry, peaty ground this summer, because the ground gets so hot down to a depth of 20cm or more.

What about raised fire pits and BBQs?

This summer, because it’s been so dry, the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland appealed to visitors not to light any fires or BBQs – if the rangers saw someone with a fire on the ground they would douse it, dig it over and explain why.  I ask about raised fires and BBQs – are these OK? Ben explained that while raised fires might not pose quite the same danger as fire lit directly on the ground, they are technically still open fires. He said that if it has been dry, even having a barbecue could be considered irresponsible in some cases, certainly no BBQ should be in contact with the ground. So if the rangers saw someone with a BBQ or raised fire they would assess the danger at the time, explain the risks, and ask people to either extinguish them or to move somewhere safer.

Beaches and riverbeds

We talk about beaches and riverbeds – Ben explains that while beaches tend to be safer spots for fires, some people light them on or close to the dunes rather than down by the tide line, and this can lead to grass fires and damage to fragile dune ecosystems. He points out that a fire on a riverbed far from vegetation is better than a fire in forest or on peat.

Carry in and carry out

Ben also commented that, as well as making sure you leave no trace after your fire, it is also good practice to try to bring your fuel (wood, charcoal etc) in with you, especially if you are visiting a bothy. He said that some popular spots in Scotland have little or no dead wood left as it’s all been burnt for fires and this is a problem as dead wood is important in the eco-system and a habitat for lots of creatures. Apparently in a healthy forest around 30% of all the woody material should be dead wood.

Forest School methods

The proliferation of forest schools are a good marker of how bushcraft is rapidly growing in popularity, hand-in-hand with rising awareness about the environment. Here’s an example of what kids learn: only light a fire if you have the landowner’s permission, dig off the top soil so you don’t damage it, light the fire, keep it under control, then thoroughly douse it out afterwards, poke a hole with a stick under the fire so the water can seep down, stay until the coals aren’t hot any more to touch, take the big bits of charcoal away with you and scatter the remaining ash around the area so it’s not concentrated in one place, then replace the top soil. 

Opinions from UK outdoor instructors

“I wouldn’t light a fire wild camping anywhere in the UK but I have found plenty of basic campsites that do allow them if they are lifted off the ground. I use fires with groups of young people where they are allowed and they love them. Maybe on a quiet beach would be an exception but even then I would make sure to leave no trace when I leave. In South Africa and Swaziland on expedition we did all our cooking on open fires but the fire pits were already in place at our wild camping spots as this was common practice in the wilderness there. I would look at the guidelines for areas you are visiting. In most National Parks around the world I think fires are strongly discouraged”
Mikaela Toczek, UK mountain instructor and expedition leader

“I only ever light campfires on beaches and in campsites (never seems to be in the UK any more but in Europe it often is). It’s a joy of camping when done responsibly and a great opportunity to educate the next generation”
– Matt Cooper, climbing and hillwalking instructor

“The easy option is to have the landowner’s permission and to have your fuel with you and prepped so you can maintain control of your fire. Using a raised fire pit is a safe option. Working with kids this helps in managing your environment, too. I think you have to separate wild camping from bushcraft. Wild camping is a means to an end. Maybe halfway up a mountain. So you wouldn’t need a fire, just a stove at most. But bushcraft – finding a site to camp and practice those skills – locating a suitable safe spot is part of the art of bushcraft”
– Simon Curran, a UK bushcraft instructor

Opinions from elsewhere in the world

“In our province it’s illegal to light a fire from June to October. Wild fires have devastated the landscape and lives of so many” – Vicki, Spain

“Seeing the wildfires and their impacts on all the westernmost National Parks this summer really changed our minds about this. We used to love campfires but now we don’t want to contribute any more to the air pollution” – Elise, LA

“British Columbia fire status notices are posted throughout the year depending on conditions and this determines what you are allowed to do. Generally no fires are allowed June to September” – John, British Columbia

Conclusion

What I take away from this is:

1 Places it’s generally OK to light a fire on the ground: campsites that allow it, quiet beaches (but NOT in the dunes and check for signs that prohibit them), Scottish riverbeds if there is no vegetation near by and there are no fire restrictions in place due to a prolonged dry spell.

2 If you’d like to light a fire elsewhere, check the local regulations or check with the landowner. In general don’t light them in woods or on peaty ground, or if there has been a prolonged dry spell.

3 If you really want to have a fire somewhere that’s not a beach or a riverbed, or if you’re not sure if the beach will be quiet, bring your own raised fire pit or BBQ, keep the fire small and never leave it unattended

4 Bring in your own fuel, where possible, and leave no trace when you leave.

5 Don’t light a fire on the ground during a prolonged dry period – it’s not worth the risk.

6 A ring of stones makes a good marker for a line kids shouldn’t cross, and helps prevent logs rolling out, but remember it doesn’t stop the fire spreading.

sarah
sarah@sarahstirling.com
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