Enjoying a campfire has been a staple of an activity amongst backpackers, campers, and hunters for millennia. The benefits afforded by a campfire are practically endless, from their ability to generate warmth, to providing a light source, to boiling drinking water, to cooking food, to keeping wild animals, who are instinctively afraid of fire, away from your campsite. Regardless of how useful campfires may be, they can also be incredibly destructive, capable of tearing through woods and countrysides and spreading at an alarming pace, leaving little more than a trail of burnt rubble, ash, and utter destruction in its wake.
A sad reality is that the majority of forest and wildfires and caused by humans who fail to properly put out their fire. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in 2018 (the most recent year stats are available for), 89% of wildfires were the result of humans. So, to help ensure you only experience the positive qualities campfires have to offer and to preserve the wilderness for future generations, we’ve put together this step-by-step guide on how to properly extinguish a campfire.
Why Proper Extinguishment Is A Must
Wildfires can be caused in a number of ways, not just limited to direct flame contact. Strong winds are capable of carrying lit embers for miles, and making matters worse is the fact embers can remain lit for hours. With a sufficient fuel source, embers and coal can stay lit indefinitely, as thoroughly evidenced by the now-abandoned town of Centralia, PA.
Once going, fires can also spread at a nearly exponential rate. During the Oakland Firestorm of ’91, a house was engulfed in flames and consumed every 11 seconds, ultimately destroying more than 3,000 homes and apartments and causing an estimated $1.5B in damage. The Cedar Fire of 2003 that claimed 15 lives and caused around $1.3B in damage spread at an astonishing rate of 5.6 miles (3,600 acres) each hour. Worse yet was 2018 which saw the largest recorded fire in the history of the State of California, with the blaze devouring close to 460,000 acres.
Steps To Putting Out A Fire
A Comprehensive Seven Step Guide
If correctly followed, this instructive how-to guide will help to guarantee that your campfire is fully extinguished, hugely mitigating the likelihood of starting a forest fire.
1. Spread It Out
The first step to putting out a campfire is to take a shovel or stick and start spreading out the ash, coal, logs, sticks, and whatever other fuel sources are being consumed. This not only helps to spread out and lessen the heat, but it also robs the fire of a continued fuel source. Plus, it makes the next step all the more efficient.
2. Douse It, Drown It
The next step to putting out a campfire is to drown it with water. To do this, you want to be standing up-wind from the flames to ensure the resulting smoke doesn’t wind up in your lungs and eyes. Start pouring the water, aiming at the base of the flames and on lit embers while holding the bucket (or whatever other water sources) a few feet from the flames, as this will help prevent you from getting burned by hot steam. This should be repeated until you no longer hear any hissing sounds coming from the embers.
3. Mix It, Scrape It
Just because you no longer hear any more hissing coals, doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any. For this reason, the next step is to take your shovel or stick and begin stirring up the fire, mixing the ash, wood, and embers with the water and dirt. If you spot any embers, you want to scrape them off of the log or whatever they’re burning. Once you’ve done this, you want to repeat the process, mixing the fire pit and looking for any embers you may have missed.
4. Douse It, Again
Once you’re confident you’ve successfully eliminated any lit embers, your next step is going to be to dump more water on the fire and fire pit. By now, the pit should have cooled off and should no longer be hot. Place the palms of your hands near the base of the fire pit, if it’s still warm or hot, you’re not done. You want to continue dousing, stirring, scraping, and repeating until the pit is cool to the touch. As a general rule of thumb, if a pit is too hot to touch, then it’s too hot to leave.
5. Final Inspection
Once you’ve determined that the fire is out and there are no more lit embers in the pit, you want to walk around your campsite and look for any lit sparks or embers that may have wandered from the fire. It only takes a single spark or ember to cause an enormous wildfire, so while this last step may seem like overkill, it’s well worth the effort.
6. Waterless Extinguishing
If you happen to be in the desert or something without readily available access to water, there are alternative methods that can be used to put out a campfire. Rather than smothering the flames with water, you can use dirt and sand. Obviously this is a much slower, more time-consuming method, though it does work. The goal here is to rob the embers or flames of any oxygen, ensuring they die out. From here, the process is basically the same as described above, only you use dirt or sand rather than water.
7. Snow Style
While it’s less than ideal, snow can be used to extinguish a fire, though this should only be done in a pinch. Because a surprisingly large amount of the snow will melt and evaporate before having any extinguishing effects on the flames, this method requires dumping what feels like at least a wheelbarrow’s or two worth of snow onto the campfire. It helps to have a snow shovel on hand to do this. If you have a container to melt the snow in, we’d recommend using the fire to melt the snow into water and then using the water.
How To Start A Campfire
While properly extinguishing a campfire is an immensely important skill to for any outdoorsman to acquire, just as crucial a task is learning to build one. So, to help ensure you learn to build a fire correctly, we’ve compiled this guide on how to start a campfire.