You might not know it to look at the snow-covered peaks and greening trees, but my home state of Colorado is in the midst of a terrible drought right now. In fact, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a good half of the country is somewhere between “abnormally dry” and “exceptional drought.”
Last year, a lack of winter snow pack led to devastating wildfires all over Colorado, forcing thousands of evacuations, burning hundreds of homes and consuming many acres of precious trees and grasslands.
Many have pointed to extreme heat, drought and wildfires as early evidence of what climate change is doing to the planet. But we can’t forget that although Mother Nature is completely capable of starting wildfires on her own, most are due to the negligence of humans.
As we enter the summer camping and hiking season, it’s more important than ever to remember the motto of Smokey the Bear: “Only you can prevent wildfires!” If you’re planning an outdoor excursion this year, here are some simple tips that will help you enjoy nature without causing a catastrophe.
1. Know The Conditions Before You Go
The best way to prevent forest fires is to avoid camping in or disrupting areas that are highly prone to a wildfire. A combination of high heat, low humidity, damaged timber and wind are the perfect ingredients for a wildfire, but they may not be obvious to the casual observer. Check out the tools offered by the U.S. Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Assessment System to know the risks in your area before you hike.
2. Adhere to Fire Restrictions and Bans
The U.S. Forest Service and other agencies are charged with protecting both our national wildlands and the visitors who come to enjoy them. They are constantly monitoring conditions and may enact a ban on open fires if conditions are right for a wildfire. Google “Your State + Fire Bans” to find out whether or not it’s ok to build a fire at your back country destination. If there is a ban on campfires in force, DON’T IGNORE IT! Many fires are started by well-meaning hikers who don’t take the bans seriously.
3. Remember Fires Aren’t The Only Thing That Burns
An open campfire isn’t the only way to start a wildfire. Lanterns, stoves and heaters, as well as discarded cigarettes, matches and cooking grease can all ignite a fire when you least expect it. Make sure lighting and heating devices are cool before refueling. Avoid spilling flammable liquids and store fuel away from appliances. Be certain to completely extinguish cigarettes before disposing of them, and never toss packaging or other waste into a fire as an alternative to packing it out. Unidentified chemicals could ignite a blaze that you’re not prepared for.
4. Think Before You Burn
There is a right and a wrong way to build a campfire. If the last time you received fire-building instruction was back in Girl Scouts, it’s time for a refresher course. Check out Smokey the Bear’s detailed advice about how to build a campfire safely, with instructions on everything from choosing a spot to extinguishing it correctly. Whenever possible, build a fire in a previously constructed fire ring, or use a self-contained grill on a flat surface that’s free from grass, twigs or other flammable materials.
5. Keep Your Eyes Open
Park rangers and fire fighters can’t be everywhere at once. Contact 911, your local fire department or the park service if you notice an unattended or out-of-control fire. Don’t assume that everything’s under control, or that the residents of an unattended campsite will be back to deal with the fire. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
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