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A man and a woman cooking on a campfire in a forest.

5 Precautions to Keep Your Bonfire or Campfire Safe

September 28, 2016

Fall is here, and it’s the ideal time of year to build a warm, crackling campfire on a chilly night. If you love to gather around a backyard fire with family and friends, it’s important to understand the fire laws in your area, as well as campfire safety precautions. Prepare for your next campfire with these five things you should know to keep your fire safe and ensure everyone has an enjoyable night!

What is the Difference Between a Bonfire and a Campfire?

When it comes to building fires, people often use the terms bonfire and campfire loosely and think of them the same way. In reality, they are quite different. 

The main difference is in size and purpose. A campfire is typically a small fire intended to be used for heating, cooking, to deter insects or to provide light for a campsite or picnic area. Campfires are small enough for people to sit around, giving off enough heat to keep you warm but comfortable. 

On the other hand, a bonfire is much bigger. The purpose of a bonfire is typically for a celebration, a large outdoor event or as a signaling device. A bonfire is a controlled fire, but its large size makes it more hazardous. Bonfires are built in open areas like fields or meadows and away from trees or brush. Bonfires are fueled by larger items like wooden pallets and large logs, while campfires are built with small tinder or coals. 

1. How to Safely Build a Campfire 

No matter what type of campfire you build, safety should be top priority. Fires are often unpredictable, and all safety precautions should be taken. 

Contain the Fire

If you’re building a campfire at a campground, there are usually designated fire rings or grills provided. Use them to keep the fire contained and away from trees, brush and tents. 

If there is no fire ring provided, there are still steps you can take to contain the campfire. 
• Place rocks around the outside.
• Dig a hole six inches deep and two feet across to place the fire and pile the dirt around the fire pit.
• Clear a circle ten feet wide of grass and leaves, making it only dirt around the fire.

Check with campground management to make sure fires are allowed. If you’re camping on an undeveloped site, check with the agency that administers the land, such as the U.S. Forest Service, as a campfire permit may be required. 

2. How to Start a Campfire

Tools and Supplies to Bring

• Shovel
• Pail for water
• Heat-resistant gloves

Materials Needed to Start the Fire

You’ll need three basic materials to start your campfire: tinder, kindling and wood. Tinder is the smallest and easiest burning materials used to get a campfire started. Tinder is dry and fluffy, which can make it a challenge to find in wet weather. It’s best to bring some with you instead of counting on finding it out in the woods. Tinder can take on many forms, including: 

• Wood shavings
• Wadded paper
• Strips of cardboard 
• Commercial fire sticks or fire starters
• Dryer lint 
• Wax

Once the tinder has caught fire, it can help ignite larger materials. The larger materials are called kindling, which typically consists of twigs or small branches. When collecting kindling, only use wood that snaps and breaks. If it bends, it is too wet to burn. Always collect all of your fire-starting materials before setting a spark, as the fire will go out quickly if you need to gather more fuel.

Now that you have the materials and supplies you need, and you’ve chosen a safe campfire spot, it’s time to build your fire. 

1. Using the tinder, start a small fire with matches or a lighter.

2. Once the tinder has caught fire, slowly add in pieces of kindling. Take your time when adding kindling to the tinder, as too much will smother the flames, requiring you to start over.

3. Next, you can add the wood. When picturing the wood used for a campfire, many people envision large logs. However, wood for a campfire doesn’t need to be bigger around than your arm. There’s no need to spend a lot of time searching for dry wood; the heat of the fire will dry damp wood and then combust.

4. One of the most effective ways to place your firewood is in a teepee style. With your kindling and tinder in the center of the fire ring, stand the firewood in a circle around the kindling, all meeting in the center resembling a teepee.

How to Safely Extinguish a Campfire

After you’ve spent an evening sitting around the campfire with family and friends, it’s time to put out the flames. Here are a few simple steps you can take to ensure your fire is completely extinguished:

1. Fill your pail with water and drown the campfire.
2. Mix the ashes and embers with soil.
3. Scrape partially burned logs to make sure the hot embers are off of them.
4. Stir the embers after they are covered with water to make sure everything is wet.
5. Everything should be cool to the touch before you leave the campfire. Once you’ve put plenty of water over the campfire and let it burn out, gently feel the fire ring, rocks around the fire and partially burned wood. If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave!

3. Consider Your Environment and Surroundings

If you’re thinking about building a campfire, always check the environment and weather forecast before getting started. If you hear of any of these conditions, it’s better not to start the fire.

• Red Flag Warning: More appropriately known as a Fire Weather Warning, this forecast from the National Weather Service indicates that the conditions are ideal for wildfires and for fires to spread rapidly. While it’s not illegal to have a campfire during a Red Flag Warning, it’s a smart choice to wait to build a fire until the conditions are safer.

• Dry Air: In the fall, humidity starts to drop, and the air gets dryer, raising the risk of wildfires. In conditions like these, a crackling campfire can become a hazardous wildfire unless it is properly extinguished.

• Wind: Always be aware of the wind strength and direction when building a campfire. If the wind picks up speed and changes direction, there could suddenly be embers and ashes flying into flammable areas. 

4. Safe Campfire Cooking

If you’re having a backyard campfire, you’ll probably end up doing a little cooking. After all, the smoke and flames can add great flavor to your meal. Whether you’re planning a whole meal or just roasting marshmallows, here are some campfire safety tips for cooking!

1. Cooking over an open flame can cause food to cook unevenly, leaving the inside uncooked while burning the outside. To avoid this, let the wood burn down to white hot coals and use the glowing embers. 
2. Turn your food every 15-20 minutes to allow it to cook evenly. 
3. Use a food thermometer to make sure your burgers are cooked to a minimum temperature of 160 F degrees.
4. When cooking directly on hot coals, wrap food in heavy-duty aluminum foil.
5. Always place hot cooking utensils and other materials a safe distance from other people and flammable items.

5. Backyard Fire Pit Safety

Even if you can’t get away for a big camping trip, you can have your own mini camping trip in your backyard! First, always check that it is legal for you to have a fire outside your home. Laws vary by city and state.

Many homeowners use portable, metal fire pits or a built-in stone fire pit to build campfires in their backyard. Whether you’re building a fire pit or you have a portable one, make sure it is a safe distance from your home. Just like camping in the woods, embers can fly from a fire in your backyard and come in contact with your home or garage. If you’re planning a backyard fire, check with your insurance agent to find out if your homeowner’s insurance policy covers this situation. It’s possible that your policy could extend, and it’s a good idea to find out.

Have a Carefree Fall with Farm Bureau Insurance

By taking these precautions, you’re bound to have a relaxing night around the toasty campfire. If you’d like the peace of mind of knowing your home is protected from the unexpected, contact your Farm Bureau agent today.