In the decade between 2006 and 2015, humans started nearly half of the 73,110 wildfires on national forest lands.
Campfires were responsible for one-third of the 33,700 human-caused wildfires in that decade. Those fires burned over 1.2 million acres.
This year saw 8,500 acres burned in the Roaring Lion fire outside Hamilton. Four young people were charged last week with negligent arson, a felony, for allegedly leaving the campfire that started that wildfire, which destroyed 16 homes and cost $11 million to fight.
“It’s a significant issue for us,” said Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management office in Washington, D.C. “We have a finite number of fire personnel and equipment. The more that we have to allocate to fight human-caused fire, the fewer we have to fight the fires we can’t prevent, which are those caused by lightning.”
Bitterroot National Forest assistant fire manager Derek Davenport knows just how hard it can be to put out a fire in the forest.
He helped battle a huge blaze near Roseburg, Oregon, several years ago that burned underground through the winter months.
“We had thought we had put that fire to bed,” he said. “There was snow on it over the winter, but that next spring we started getting smoke. It was burning well underground. Once the nice hot temperatures returned, we ended up dealing with it on a regular basis.”
That same kind of thing can occur when people build a campfire in a dispersed camping site, especially if there had never been a fire ring there before.
“What can happen is the campfire can catch the root system on fire as it burns overnight,” he said. “Obviously, the heat in a campfire can be very intense.”
Davenport wishes people wouldn’t be in a hurry when it comes to putting out their campfires.
“You really need to sit there for a little bit to make sure that it is out,” he said. “The best way to do that is put your hand in the coals to see if you can find any heat.”
He hopes it will become a regular ritual for campers.
Every summer, Davenport said Bitterroot Forest firefighters keep watch over dispersed camping sites where a campfire is often part of the experience of staying there.
“They are on our radar,” Davenport said. “While we hope not to see a fire escape a fire ring, 90 percent of the time we know those dispersed sites are where it will happen.
“Every year, we find abandoned campfires,” he said. “Fortunately, the majority of those are still in the fire ring, but occasionally, the wind will come up and the fire escapes.”
If the conditions are right, the fire can remain small for several days until the relative humidity drops and the wind and temperatures rise.
“People need to remember that it’s really important to stir up the coals and make sure that water gets mixed in really well,” he said. “That heat can get under the soil. If you put enough water on it and stir it up well enough, you’re probably going to be OK.”
Education is the key in Davenport’s mind.
He is hoping that he and others can start getting into the schools and showing students the proper way to put out a campfire in the near future.
“In my six years on the Bitterroot, all the fires that have started from campfires have just been negligence,” he said. “I don’t recall any arson. People need to remember what we tell all of our firefighters: ‘If you light the match and it gets away from you, it’s on you.’
“I think doing a better job of education can only make things better,” he said.