Be Careful With Fire

Many outdoor spaces in Colorado have been impacted by the careless use of fires and the demand for firewood. Campfires are beautiful by night, but the soot-scarred rock rings — rings that are often overflowing with ashes, partly burned logs, food and trash — are unsightly by day. More importantly, campfires can and do ignite deadly wildfires.

Many of us grew up with the tradition of campfires but in many places, they are restricted or forbidden. Always ask about fire regulations from rangers and other land managers before you head to your campsite. It’s best to use existing fire rings or fire pans to prevent leaving lasting impacts if you do choose to have a fire.

Use a stove. If you plan on cooking in the outdoors, you should carry a stove, the necessary cooking equipment, matches and enough fuel to cook all meals. Learn more about the benefits of using a camp stove to cook your meals.

Build fires only when conditions are right — the danger of wildfire is low (look for signs at the entrances to natural areas or speak to the ranger), dead and downed wood is plentiful, and there is sufficient time to prepare the fire site, burn all the wood to cold ash and clean up.

Fires should be avoided in fragile environments like alpine (high-altitude) areas. Wood from many mountainous trees and bushes, such as arctic willow or alpine krummholz, can be hundreds of years old but will burn quickly. These areas can be incredibly susceptible to wildfire and can take years to fully recover. For this reason, many areas prohibit campfires above treeline to protect this important part of Colorado’s ecosystem.

Build a minimum-impact fire. Consider whether a fire makes good sense at your picnic or campsite.

If a campfire is important to you:

  • Ask rangers about pertinent regulations and campfire management techniques.
  • Judge the wind, weather, location and wood availability. Decide whether it’s safe and responsible to build a campfire.
  • Where there are no fire rings or grates, bring a fire pan or set aside time to build a mound fire.
  • Have a container for dousing the ashes with water.
  • Keep the fire small. Small fires consume fewer resources and leave less impact, but they still provide a cozy social atmosphere desired by campfire devotees.

Use an established fire ring or grate. Fire rings dot the mountains in Colorado. In fact, you often find dozens in popular camping areas. To prevent this continued proliferation, always use existing rock rings for your fire. If your campsite does not have a fire ring, don’t build one. Instead, have a pan fire.

To ensure that others use the same fire ring you used, leave behind a single, clean circle of rocks that is free of excess ash, half-burned wood and trash. If a fire grate is present, don’t build or use a rock ring. Leave the grate clean and ready for the next person.

Pan fires. Fire pans are metal oil pans or aluminum roasting pans that make good containers for low-impact fires. They can be purchased at any outdoor retailer or online. Use a pan on a durable, unvegetated surface away from cliffs or overhangs. Line it with a few inches of mineral soil, and elevate it with stones to prevent damage to vegetation and soil below. Drill two or three holes through the side of the pan to attach it to a pack with cord for transport. You can also carry a fire blanket to place under the pan and protect the underlying ground.

Watch: How to Use a Fire Pan >>

Use dead and downed wood. Snapping branches off of trees, either living or dead, is never in style. Use only sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. Larger pieces of downed wood play an important role in the ecosystem. They provide shelter for wildlife and habitat for many plant species. Firewood smaller than your wrist breaks easily and burns completely to ash, making clean up easier. The use of hatchets, axes or saws isn’t necessary to have a fire.

Manage your campfire. No matter which fire-building technique you employ, the following guidelines will ensure that your fire is safe and leaves as little impact as possible:

  • Never leave a fire unattended.
  • Don’t try to burn trash, leftover food or other garbage that would have to be removed later.
  • Burn the wood completely to ash: Stop feeding the fire and give yourself an hour or more to add all the unburned stick ends.
  • Saturate the ash with water. Make sure it’s cool to the touch and remove any trash.
  • Restore the appearance of the fire site.

Learn more about how you can minimize campfire impacts.

Test Your Campfire Savvy With This Quiz!Test Your Campfire Savvy With This Quiz!

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

Created in Partnership with Leave No Trace and the Colorado Office of Tourism / Care for Colorado program.