Fire season is here again. Rainy spring weather transitioned into beautiful summer days and then all of a sudden everything was crispy, smoky and the mountains disappeared behind a haze. Enjoying the outdoors during fire season can be tricky. Often the places you want to go are near a fire, or the air quality is bad enough medical professionals recommend people stay inside. However, Montana is a big place and there is usually somewhere you can go to escape the heat and smoke. Fire season is also the time when those enjoying the outdoors need to take extra precautions with fire safety.
Wildland Fires in Numbers
As of today for 2017, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 42,185 fires in the US covering 6,350,711 acres and we are just in August! Active wildfires are located in California (7 fires), Florida (1 fire), Idaho (3 fires), Montana (12 fires), Oregon (16 fires), Washington (5 fires), and Wyoming (1 fire). Of the 45 active fires only four are contained. 2016 had a total of 38,010 fires covering 3,954,866 acres. The costs of suppression in 2016 was almost $2 billion. I am assuming with the increase in fires during 2017 we will be way over the $2 billion mark by the end of the year. The cost is not just monetary; 2016 saw 15 wildland firefighter deaths. Keep these numbers in mind while camping this summer to keep yourself and others safe.
Planning your Trip
The first thing you should do when planning your camping trip during fire season is check to see if there are active fires in the area you want to travel including near roads or highways. InciWeb has lists of active fires by state, or you can see wildfires in map view on the US Wildfire Activity Web Map. If there is an active fire in the area you want to travel, change your plans. If you will be camping in public lands (National Parks, National Forests, BLM, State Parks, etc.) call the local agency office to find out if there are closures due to fires or fire restrictions and plan accordingly. Many times fire restrictions are simple including campfires restricted to designated fire rings and limited smoking, but sometimes camp stoves are restricted which could put a damper on any gourmet camp meals you had planned. If you do not follow these restrictions you could be fined or jailed so it is worth the effort to find out any relevant information.
When building a fire use designated fire rings or fire rings which are already built. Keep a shovel and water nearby while you have a fire going. Keep fires small (no bonfires) and manageable. Never leave a fire unattended. If you must leave or are heading to bed, use water or dirt (water is preferable) to extinguish flames. Use a stick to move the logs, ash and coals around to make sure there aren't hidden hot spots. Continue this process until the fire is cool. We travel with a collapsible bucket which is perfect for extinguishing fires.
Be considerate of weather conditions. Montana can be very windy at times, so it may be best to forgo a fire altogether rather than risk starting a wildfire. Don't burn trash if it won't be entirely consumed, and don't burn plastic- no one wants to breathe those fumes. My goal when camping is to leave the site better than when I found it, which usually entails picking up the last people's trash, often in the fire ring. Leaving partially burned trash attracts wildlife, like bears, who you don't want to be cozying up to at night while camping.
Smoking (this means more than just cigarettes) is often restricted during extreme fire danger. During this time smoking is only allowed in an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site or an area three feet in diameter cleared of all flammable materials. Cigarette butts discarded out a car window while driving can cause grass fires along roadways which can escalate to much larger fires endangering people and structures. Along this same note, if you are towing a trailer make sure the safety chains are not dragging. Sparks from the chains hitting pavement can start fires.
The number one thing not to do while camping is to light off fireworks! In 2012 a man was charged with felony arson for allegedly starting a wildfire from setting off fireworks from a campground. The wildfire cost $1.23 million to suppress and lost property was valued at $3.8 million (Bozeman Daily Chronicle). Luckily, no one was hurt, but a couple lost their home and horses.
Camping is a great way to enjoy the summer months, even during fire season, if you take the right precautions. When in doubt enjoy a night looking at the stars without a fire. I've done it and enjoyed it!
Photos in this post are courtesy of R. Keogh - long time wildland firefighter and now smoke jumper in Alaska.