As wildfire risk grows, campfires fade across an arid West

Photo for The Washington Post by Tailyr Irvine
An empty chair sits in front of a campfire with unused fire logs sitting on the grill at the Charles Waters Campground in Florence, Mont., on Aug. 29, 2022.

FLORENCE, Mont. – The hum of RV generators and faint whiff of pine lent ambiance on a recent evening to the Charles Waters campground in the Bitterroot Mountains. Absent were the crackle and hiss of campfires and the distinctive scent of burning wood.

Wildfire danger is “extreme” in this southwest Montana national forest during these hot late summer days, according to authorities. And bright yellow notices on the campground’s picnic tables, bulletin boards and water spigots informed campers of one consequence: No campfires.

Randy Carroll, 74 and sporting a poof of white beard, sat next to his van amid tall Ponderosas. His Chihuahua, Dinky, scurried about. Save for some old ashes, his site’s fire ring sat empty – missing fellow travelers who might trade stories around it and the Dutch oven that Carroll often bakes bread in over glowing charcoal briquettes.

“When you build a fire and you’re sitting beside a fire, you’re controlling one of the most powerful elements in the world,” said Carroll, who spends summers in the forests of the West. But bread isn’t on the menu these days, he said. “I’m not allowed to because there’s a fire ban.”

Amid record-breaking heat waves, larger and longer wildfires and a mega-drought, many fire officials are limiting or prohibiting campfires, which the U.S. Forest Service says caused 30 percent of fires on its land over the past decade.

Pitching a tent this month in Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, on the shores of California’s New Melones Lake or in the vast Western Nevada desert? Fires aren’t allowed. Even Rhode Island banned campfires at state parks for part of August, citing drought.

The bans are both a reflection of today’s extreme summer conditions and a sign of halting efforts to slow the worst impacts of climate change: With broader solutions far off, experts and officials say, attempting to prevent human-sparked blazes is at least one concrete and immediate step to avert calamity. But as campfires are snuffed out, so is the American tradition of roasting marshmallows and hot dogs, and the far more ancient ritual of human bonding around crackling flames.

“Our ability to cook food on an open fire and gather around the fire is cultural, it’s religious. One of the key markers of the human species is our ability to use and manipulate fire,” said Jennifer K. Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “To take that out of our camping experience is counter to millennia of gathering around a fire.”

And yet, she said, it may be necessary. Balch’s research has found that people sparked 84 percent of U.S. wildfires over two recent decades, and that hotter and drier nights – s’mores time – are intensifying blazes. “We’re seeing the effects of climate change in many different ways,” Balch said.

At campgrounds, visitors are choosing cold cuts instead of hot sausages, propane grills instead of skillets and cold brew instead of steaming coffee. “Flashlight fires” have become the new bonfire.

“It’s so nice to have a warm fire to sit next to,” said Luke Hayduk, owner of Bitterroot Backpacking, who offers guided excursions in Montana and provides fire-baked bread when allowed.

When that’s not possible, as it hasn’t been in the Bitterroot Valley since the fire ban took effect last month, Hayduk said he warns clients – some of whom “are really bummed out by it,” he said – and relies on his gas backpacking stove and campsite games.

“I’m trying to find ways to keep that spirit alive,” Hayduk said.

No one tracks fire bans nationwide, though the U.S. Forest Service says it has formed an interagency task force to develop a tool to map restrictions, which are implemented by local, state and federal agencies – often in overlapping regions and in coordination. But authorities in the drought-stricken West said campfire restrictions are now in place more often as wildfire season has stretched into a year-round risk.

Restrictions can be extreme: Colorado issued a temporary statewide burn ban in the summer of 2020, as did Washington in 2021. They can also be in dispute: Local fire districts near Lake Tahoe complain that their prohibitions on outdoor burning conflict with nearby state parks’ rules, which allow fires at campgrounds.

But they are typically based on a checklist of factors, said Jon Skinner, national fire mitigation and education specialist for the Bureau of Land Management. Those include weather, wind and drought conditions, as well as the availability of firefighters who are increasingly in demand.

“We don’t take fire restrictions lightly,” he added. “They are a huge impact to the public.”

In parched Southwest Utah, bureau staff calculate moisture in the area’s vegetation each week by collecting sagebrush and juniper needles in tin cans, weighing them, cooking them in an oven and weighing them again, said Nickolas Howell, a fire mitigation and education specialist in the Color Country District Office. That helps them predict fire danger from dry fuel, one consideration when deciding whether to announce burn bans.

When fire risk is particularly high, special teams are deployed to inform campers about bans, though violators are rarely ticketed, Howell said. He said it is unclear how effective campfire restrictions are, though he’s not sure he wants to find out: About 300 to 500 wildfires break out in the district each year, about 35 percent of which are human-caused, Howell said.

“When we are in fire restrictions and we have the campfire scenario that comes into play, I always wonder how much worse it would be if we weren’t in fire restrictions,” Howell said.

At the Charles Waters campground in Montana late last month, distant peaks were obscured by a bit of haze, likely from the massive Moose Fire 100 miles south. The Bitterroot National Forest has always had a natural cycle of fires, and the Salish peoples’ use of flame shaped the forest’s ecosystem for centuries. Parts of the “Big Burn” of 1910, which scorched 3 million acres and shaped national policy to systematically suppress wildfire, swept through the mountains.

In August, Forest Service officials said, hot temperatures and dry fuel compelled them to skip over Stage 1 restrictions – which permit fires in rings at developed campsites – and go straight to Stage 2.

Campground hosts Debbie and Bruce Walters sat in foldout chairs over a bed of pine needles. They have been hosting – performing basic maintenance, answering questions and making sure campers pay the $15 nightly fee – for nearly a decade.

By and large, they said, campers have heeded the ban. Instead of the usual crackling fires, the Walterses said, some visitors were relying on artificial, propane campfires that are easily contained, quickly turned off and permitted even when the Stage 2 fire ban is in place.

“They’re still warm, you can still make your s’mores over ’em,” Bruce Walters said.

Terence Holiday, a construction worker from the Navajo Nation in southern Utah, wasn’t convinced. He and a friend, staying at the campsite while working on a job in nearby Hamilton, had purchased sandwiches for dinner.

“The sound and the movement of the fire – that’s what’s special about it to me,” he said. “Food tastes like real food with an open fire, compared to a propane grill or whatever.”

Diana Hansen, who runs the blog Let’s Camp S’more, said she understands the qualms. She and her husband, who live in Illinois, spent 85 nights on the road last year, sometimes in the shadow of wildfire smoke. Hansen authored a book on campfire cooking, but she said more and more she prepares meals inside her RV – because she’s not a risk taker, and because navigating town, county, state and federal websites for restrictions can be a headache.

“I’m in several Facebook camping groups, and I see a lot of people asking questions: Can I use a Blackstone?” she said, referring to a popular tabletop propane stove. “And people are like, yes you can. And other people are like, no you can’t. You have to check with the local jurisdiction, and things can change daily and hourly as far as what’s allowed.”

Some of her most popular recipes – pizza bread, nachos – are meant to be prepared over an open fire. But last month, Hansen wrote a new kind of post: “65 Fire Ban Camping Recipes.”

“Even with restrictions and bans, people still want to get out and camp,” Hansen said.

And during a climate crisis, that means having a Plan B when it comes to any plans for campfire cuisine, said Michael van Vliet and Megan McDuffie, who run the blog Fresh Off The Grid from their home in central Oregon.

“You can get a lucky year here and there, but I think the trendline is disturbingly in the direction of more and more wildfires . . . We’re going to have to start to integrate that into the way we use the outdoors,” van Vliet said, adding: “The overall theme is you have to embrace propane and propane accessories.”

In the West, the threat of wildfire now looms over kids’ summer camps, where daily schedules have for decades included singing around bonfires alongside canoeing and archery. Andy “Soy” Moeschberger, the director and self-proclaimed “chief fun officer” of Gold Arrow Camp in the High Sierra east of Fresno, said he was wary of fires when he began working at the camp 15 years ago. Now it’s a top concern – and fire safety is the first thing discussed at orientation on Day 1.

In 2020, a wildfire tore through Forest Service land that Gold Arrow uses, destroying two sheds and leaving a burn scar. A backpacking trip with kids last month involved no campfire, because they are banned in the area.

But Moeschberger says campfires are so “essential” at the main camp that Gold Arrow has acquired a special-use permit from the Forest Service. Every cabin gathers each night around a campfire – lit in a concrete-bottom pit with a bucket of water close at hand – to roast marshmallows, pop popcorn and talk about the day’s highs and lows.

“It gives a focal point. There’s something we’re all sitting around,” Moeschberger said. “Sometimes you’re talking about awkward things, like, ‘I was scared today.’ If I don’t have something in the middle for me to look at, I have to look at somebody to say that, which requires an insane amount of courage.”

In the Bitterroots, Debbie Walters said she sees similar value in a campfire.

“It just grabs you,” she said. “And definitely de-stresses, if you sit there long enough.”

At the start of each day, Walters wanders the campground, scouting for little pieces of wood and pine cones that she typically uses for her morning blaze. These days, she still collects the kindling, even though she’s not allowed to start a fire. She has filled two boxes, ready for whenever the ban is lifted.

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Brulliard reported from Boulder, Colo.