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Why We Don't Build Fires

by Bill Greer, Dallas Group Outings Chair

Extensive research by the National Park Service and other outdoor managers shows that for many people a campfire is an important part of outdoor recreation.  But for the most part, the Dallas Group does not build fires on our outings.  I’d like to explain our policy below.

The Sierra Club is not an outings club, but a conservation club that does outings.  We started our outings program to show people why certain areas should be protected.  Therefore, it would run counter to our goals if our outings themselves damaged areas we are trying to protect.  In a nutshell, the reason we do not build fires is that they cause harm to the wilderness that no amount of care can prevent.  Read on and you’ll see why.  As a conservation club, we have a duty to teach a better way.

Damage from the fire itself:
No CampfiresSome damage from campfires is readily evident.  Campsites quickly acquire a ring of rocks filled with ashes and partly burned trash.  When that one is filled, or deemed too small or in the wrong place, another is built.  Soon some of the best tent places are occupied by a fire ring.  Makeshift furniture accompanies some of the rings.  The area begins to look less like wilderness and more like someone’s primitive homestead.  You don’t appreciate how this alters the forest until you see an area that has seen little human visitation.

Some damage is not evident.  Since it burns a lot of wood in one restricted space, a campfire chars the ground to considerable depth.  This kills tree roots and alters the soil.  Park Service studies show that burning trash injects toxins into the soil, and unfortunately most people do try to dispose of trash in their campfire.

The damage isn’t restricted just to the forest.  Back when we built fires, embers popped out by green firewood sometimes burned holes in a favorite rain jacket or tent.

Today we find that without a fire, we can see the stars and our fellow campers much better.  We can appreciate the woods as they are without having to burn them.  We don’t have any smoke in our eyes.

Some organizations try to promote “leave no trace” fires by using fire pans or excavations.  But these methods are usually impractical, always a lot of work, and people just will not go to the effort.  The lesson most people take away from “leave no trace” fires is that fires are OK.  The rest is forgotten, and another fire ring gets built.  As a conservation organization, we have a duty to show people how to do better.

The only fire that truly leaves no trace is the fire that didn’t get built.

Damage from gathering fuel:
The first thing people planning a campfire do is start gathering fuel.  At first, there are plenty of small sticks on the ground that make perfect fuel.  But they are soon used up, and people then tear dead branches from trees.  When those are gone, green branches start to go.  Informal trails spread from the campsite as people search for fuel.  Soon, people chop down small standing trees.  They’re too green to burn, but people will try.  Pretty soon, the forest around a campsite is scoured as high as anyone can reach or climb.  Even if it were possible to build a “leave no trace” fire, this fuel-gathering damage goes on, killing trees and scarring those that don’t die.

According to the National Park Service, “Campsite-monitoring surveys have consistently shown significant levels of tree damage and felling associated with campfire use.” “No strategy or action investigated in this study effectively avoided or minimized damage to trees, which was extensive in some of the study areas.”  Those small branches on the ground are supposed to be recycled into new branches on new trees.  We want people to learn to let that happen.

The only fire that leaves no scars on the forest is the one that didn’t get built.

Escaped fire:
Escaped and often illegal campfires damaged some of our favorite places to hike (Blue Creek in Big Bend, Bandelier, and White Mountains in New Mexico).  Tree roots can ignite to smolder unseen for hours.  People often build fires where there is no water available to drown the fire.  Strong winds will carry embers for long distances.  They don’t always land on your tent or jacket; sometimes they land in dry leaves and start another fire.  You can be as careful as possible and still be defeated by sudden gusts.

The only fire that will never escape is the one that didn’t get built.

We have a duty to teach a better way:
When there was lots of wilderness and few visitors, a few fires didn’t hurt anything.  Now there are lots of visitors and very little wilderness.  In the remaining bits of wilderness, we tend to concentrate in a few special places.  As a conservation organization, we have a duty to help others learn to enjoy those places without damaging them.

For many years people cooked their meals over campfires, but most of us have now learned to use backpacking stoves.  This is more convenient and undoubtedly reduced campfire damage.  As a conservation organization, we have a duty to help people take the next step and wean themselves from fires entirely.  Even in those rare cases in the wilderness where a fire possibly could be built without lasting harm, we must use this chance to teach a better way to both folks we may not see again and those who may not yet understand.

National Park Service research shows that even complete bans on campfires are not completely successful in reducing campfire damage.  People ignore the law and build fires anyway.  The only way campfire damage can ever be eliminated is if we can teach people to enjoy a night in the woods without building a fire.

It is human nature to believe that the things we really, really, like to do could not possibly be harmful.  We need to help those who go on our outings look beyond that and understand that no matter how enjoyable they might find that fire, it really is harmful.  Pretty soon they realize that the night sky, the dark woods, and good friends are nice enough that the night is more enjoyable without that smoky old fire.

The best way to teach others not to need fire is to show them a night in the woods without one.

Can we never toast our ‘smores?
Does this mean that we can never enjoy toasting a marshmallow over a wood fire?  Of course not.  Developed campgrounds in local, state and federal parks almost always have fire sites that are carefully placed and constructed so that a fire built in them is unlikely to cause damage.  You must bring your own wood rather than chop down the park’s trees.  And yes, that firewood also came from trees, but at least they were probably not in a wilderness or park but rather in a woodlot that was doomed to become timber anyway.  If you have just not been able to completely wean yourself from that primitive need for fire, this is the place to satisfy that perceived need.  Personally, I don’t care for a fire even in this setting.

If you must have a campfire, visit one of our state or national park campgrounds.

For more information:
I hope this article has helped explain why we don’t build fires.  I know it won’t convince everyone, but at least you will know why our policy came about.

“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”
  -- Helen Keller

Some of the information about campfire impacts for this article, and much more, can be found in this research paper funded by the National Park Service: http://www.tcfroar.org/pdf/freeresources/bsa/others/jeffmarion/Campfire%20Impacts%20EM%20paper.pdf .

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