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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Boondocking and forest fires

The West received adequate rainfall and snow this past winter to load up the reservoirs with a plentiful drinking water supply. But that doesn't mean that by the end of summer the forests and meadows won't be tinder dry since summer rains do not fall as frequently as they do in the eastern part of the country. And where you have dry grass and shrubs, there will always be the possibility of forest fires. If you are a boondocker, being deep in the forest where there is a nearby fire raging does not add to your camping enjoyment.

Not only do we as individual boondockers need to be extra careful in dry conditions to not send a spark into these dry grasses, but we must also be aware of what is going on around us in the forest. Often, rangers will require you to carry a bucket and shovel as emergency tools for small fires. The bucket to hold water to throw on the fire and the shovel to bury live or smoldering coals with dirt. The wildfire in Flagstaff this week consumed over 10,000 acres, threatened several homes, and was started by an abandoned campfire. A campfire that that was not extinguished and the winds--up to 20 mph--turned into a Ponderosa pine inferno.

In super dry conditions it would be advisable not to even build a campfire, since a wind can suddenly kick embers into the air from your fire as happened in Flagstgaff. But if you do, when you leave your fire:
  • Make sure all brush and dry grass is cleared away from your campfire
  • Throw water on the fire and/or coals
  • Put your hand on the coals to make sure they are cold
  • Bury the coals with dirt

But starting a fire is not the only concern with summer camping and boondocking in national forests. A wildfire--or even a controlled burn--can send plumes of smoke at your campsite, making breathing both uncomfortable and unhealthy. The smoke can make you cough, cause your eyes to water--just like standing down wind of a campfire. Who wants to camp under those conditions?

If it hasn't happened to you, you've been lucky. No matter how far away a known fire might be, if you don't know the wind direction you could be in for an unpleasant time--both from blowing smoke and from a fire that might be burning in your direction.

You can avoid these complications by doing a little research before you head into the forest.

  • Consult the National Forest Service's wildfire web page for current fire information for all the national forests around the country.
  • Stay away from any fire endangered area.
  • Get the latest weather reports, and listen especially for predictions of high winds, dry lightening strikes, and local wind directions.
  • Identify all escape routes from your campsite if a fire starts while you are there.
  • If reception permits, listen each day to local news broadcasts for related info.
Remember that the responsibility of your safety rests with you. If a fire does start, authority and firefighters will be busy, tired, and spread thin and maybe not always available to rescue you.

For more on boondocking, check out my eBooks at


  1. It is my understanding that "controlled burn" is no longer the right term since they don't always stay controlled. They are now called "prescribed burns," a much more accurate term, I think.

    When a friend of mine went on his first prescribed burn the driver told him, "If I say run, don't hesitate. Get out of the truck and RUN!"

    So, those who do this every year know that even a prescibed burn can turn unexpectedly. If you are anywhere near a wildfire, be prepared to run.

  2. Another hint a fire is nearby -- listen for low flying aircraft. If one is circling in the distance but no smoke column is visible it may be a small fire just starting. Hopefully it will be quickly controlled. But if a smoke column becomes visible and keeps growing it may be time to break camp and move on. Even if not threatened by the fire, you will be smoked in the next morning.