Fires have come to feel like a natural element of summer in the West. Some of them are, most of them are not.
Last year, of the 68,988 wildfires reported in the U.S., almost 90% were human-caused, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, meaning almost 90% were preventable. The Rocky Mountain region alone had 1,584 human-caused fires.
Cue Smokey Bear.
July is a big month for backcountry travel in Colorado, so we spoke with some experts about how to make sure you’re being safe and smart when it comes to fire.
Everyone had essentially the same message: Don’t make campfires in the backcountry if you can avoid it.
If you decide to have a fire, plan ahead. Bring a fire pan or build a fire ring, and have water at the ready. Lastly, make sure the burned material is completely cool to the touch before you walk away.
Know before you go
Knowing which fire restrictions are in place is the first step in prevention.
There is no central database with up-to-date fire restrictions across jurisdictions — county, state and federal lands each issue their own restrictions — so don’t feel frustrated if the answer isn’t immediately available.
“Search for the specific site that you’re going to,” said David Boyd, a Colorado-based spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. “Don’t try to find one that’s trying to sum it up for everybody.”
Boyd said that even if fire restrictions aren’t in place, there can still be fire danger, depending on elevation, aspect and other conditions. “You might be in an area with high fire danger just because of the wind and weather at that particular moment,” he said.
Best practice is to look at the specific website for the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service or state park lands that you plan to visit.
Sheriff’s offices are also good sources for local restrictions. If information isn’t readily available, call them.
The state has gathered links to all of the relevant agencies on one page.
“Park information phone numbers are there for people,” said Micki Trost, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “And then you’re talking to someone who is there, who can tell you the exact conditions.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that restrictions change daily, at any time of day. “We’ve seen five new fires in 74 hours,” Trost said. “And with how hot it’s been, I expect the fire restrictions to change again this weekend.”
But, again, everything with fire has nuance. Boyd said in the White River National Forest, which is host to some of the most popular overnight trails in Colorado like the Four Pass Loop, there is still snow and mud in areas that don’t usually have it over the Fourth of July weekend. “It’s going to look different, and people should just be aware of that,” he said.
Ultimately, the responsibility falls on each person to know where they’re headed and what to check. Fines and penalties vary depending on the agency, but can be up to $5,000 and possible jail time.
Finding red flags
Finding fire restrictions is one thing. Interpreting them is another.
The important signs to look for are red flag warnings, and stage 1 and stage 2 fire restrictions.
Red flag warnings are issued by the National Weather Service. They simply state that conditions are right for fires, whether that’s related to temperature, wind, humidity or something else, Trost said.
It’s up to the land manager — the county, state or federal agency — to take that information and decide whether to implement fire restrictions. There can be slight nuances between counties and federal lands as far as staged restrictions go, but Boyd said that they are almost unified.
For campers, a stage 1 fire restriction means that fires are only allowed within designated fire rings at established campgrounds. A stage 2 fire ban means no fires at all.
How to have a fire
Keep in mind that it’s not just the fire that has ecological impact.
Wood gathering, especially in highly trafficked areas, can leave a forest floor malnourished, said Cody Kurschner, an employee and self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades at Gearonimo sporting goods in Colorado Springs. “The wood could get really picked through, I don’t think that people realize how bad that can be for the environment,” he said. So, first of all, make sure there are plentiful resources, including, of course, water.
Kurschner recommended bringing some plastic water bottles just to collect water for the fire. If you’re going to have a fire, you have to plan ahead, he emphasized. And, as an aside, if you plan on drinking the water, be sure to use a quality filter or some other proven means of making it safe.
Boyd suggested looking at Leave No Trace’s principles for safe campfires. “The whole idea with the backcountry is minimizing impact,” he said.
He recommended that if you know you’re going to build fires, to bring a fire pan to help lessen the environmental burden.
Douse it, mix it, touch it
Part Smokey Bear, part Busta Rhymes circa 2006, the rules for extinguishing a fire are simple and effective:
Douse it, mix it, touch it.
“That’s the old Smokey Bear poster and everything, but it’s really true,” Boyd said. He said that Forest Service crews regularly come across fires on a Monday that are still warm from the weekend.
“The most important thing is that if you do have a campfire, when you’re leaving, douse it, mix the water in, and stick your hand in to make sure it’s cool to the touch,” Trost said.
Boulder County Fire Management Officer Seth McKinney gave the same answer, almost verbatim. So did Capt. Tim Keeton of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office. “If you can’t put your bare hand where the material was burning, it’s not out,” Keeton said.
At the end of the day, understand your surroundings before burning in the backcountry. “If there is any wind, don’t have a fire,” Kurschner said. “That will start a big wildfire real fast, faster than you can snap.”
Trost reiterated the reliance on common sense: “If it feels too dry to have a campfire, then don’t have a campfire. It will help protect the state for everyone.”