Campfire safety in drought conditions

Farm Forum

BROOKINGS, S.D. – When drought conditions exist, as they do in many areas of western South Dakota, camp fires can result in catastrophic damage to land, wildlife, structures and human lives.

“Recently, fire authorities in California announced that a large wildfire in their state was sparked by an illegal campfire that, although contained in a fire pit, was, in fact, not completely extinguished,” explained Rachel Lindvall, SDSU Extension Community Development Field Specialist.

For many of us who love camping and the outdoors, the campfire is a big part of the charm of the outdoor experience, however, Lindvall explained that if you truly love the outdoors, “you must do your homework before deciding if a campfire will be part of your experience when conditions are dry”.

Below Lindvall lists factors to consider when thinking about whether or not a camping trip or even a backyard cookout should include a campfire:

● Know before you go: During fire season, open fires may be prohibited or otherwise restricted by the regulatory agency in charge of the campground or facility that you are visiting.

In extreme fire danger situations, a county government can restrict fires in residential settings as well.

To find out about the area that you plan to visit or host a campfire at anywhere in the United States, you can consult the website

At this site, you can easily find the daily restrictions effective for any county location in South Dakota or any other state.

If you plan to visit the Black Hills, the website found at provide you with up to date, specific information about any restrictions that are in effect at sites managed by a variety of different government entities in the area.

“If you find that you will not be permitted to have a campfire, make sure that you allow for other methods of safe food preparation”, Lindvall said. “Often, small camping stoves using propane or other contained fuel sources are permitted even when campfires are not.”

● Locating your campfire: According the Boy Scouts of America, the best location for your campfire is always in an existing fire pit that was constructed by the park or campsite you are visiting.

Often, fire restrictions will only allow for fires in established fire rings or fire pits.

“If you are permitted and must construct your own site for a campfire, keep in mind that you should avoid areas near your tent, vehicles, shrubs and trees”, Lindvall said. She added that you must also be aware of low-hanging branches.

Construct your fire pit by clearing the site down to mineral soil for a 10-foot diameter circle. Surround your campfire site with large rocks. Finally, remember to store your unused firewood a good distance from the fire.

● Burn wood only: Do not burn paper, plastic or food remains as they may produce more sparks and cause accidental ignition of surrounding materials.

Did you know that different types of wood burn differently? For a campfire, look for wood that burns with minimal sparking and smokiness.

Some suggestions include oaks, ash and elm woods.

● Keep your campfire small: A small fire is easier to contain and control. Never add lighter fluids or gasoline.

● Make sure that an adult is there to tend your fire at all times: You should also always have a shovel and a large quantity of water readily available to control the fire if need be.

● Be absolutely sure that your fire is completely out before you go to sleep or leave the site: The best way to accomplish this is to drown the coals with water, stir with the shovel and drown again until it is completely extinguished.

A good rule of thumb is that if the coals are too hot to touch, your fire is too hot to leave unattended.

Finally, remember to always keep an eye on small children and pets while you are enjoying your campfire songs and those tasty S’mores.

By following these guidelines, you can rest easy knowing that your precautions will help allow for many more great safe outdoor experiences in this season and in the future.