Friday, April 6, 2012

A Burning Question: Do you have fires in the backcountry?

By Sarah Gruen, Recreation Resources Intern

Campfires provide warmth, light, security and a somewhat effective way to cook food. But there is a dark side of fires; campfires can lead to degradation of the ecosystem and to future user’s experience. Blackened rocks and trashed fire pits are an eyesore, but a more significant consequence of campfires is the development of patches of barren ground. Repeated campfires in an area will remove organic matter and sterilize the soil. Compounding the problem is that the use of downed wood as fuel deprives the ecosystem of an important source of nutrients.

To help determine when it is appropriate and responsible to have a campfire, here is a list of questions you should ask yourself:

Are there any restrictions from the land manager? What is the fire danger for the time of year and the location you are in?

Many areas have regulations restricting the use of campfires. Pay attention to these! Restrictions are reactions to specific conditions such as massive forest fuel buildup coupled with unpredictable winds or to other scenarios that set the stage for out of control fires. During these periods, even if you follow the normal precautions like locating your campfire away from dry grasses, tree branches, and root systems, making a fire still presents a great risk.

Different destinations have burning regulations that take site-specific characteristics into consideration. For instance, in Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest, the general guidelines state that fires in the wilderness and backcountry are not allowed above 3,500 feet elevation. Within Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest your destination may have additional restrictions due to unique conditions. Take care to learn and respect the local regulations and prepare accordingly.


If you are unsure what restrictions are in place you can contact the land manager for the up to date information. That is what I did to learn about the nuanced set of restrictions in place in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Guidelines differ between land managers: if you are in the Wenatchee National Forest fires are not permitted above 5,000 feet elevation while if you are in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest fires are not permitted above 4,000 feet elevation.

Is there enough appropriate firewood to use as fuel?

Appropriate firewood is dry, found on the ground and small in diameter (this means one or two inches thick or about the size of your wrist). The reasoning is that small wood is more likely to burn to ash and that it is less critical to the ecosystem. “Less critical” is key: woody matter and downed wood is still important so make sure you leave some behind. Fallen trees and decaying wood serve many functions, including providing animals with food and shelter, recycling nutrients that increase site productivity, acting as germination sites for certain plants (have you ever seen a “nurse log”?), and increasing the water-holding capacity of the soil.

The areas immediately surrounding designated campsites are often stripped of downed wood and branches from trees. You may consider collecting firewood as you travel to your campsite.

Can the regeneration of wood sources keep up with the demand for firewood?

In certain environments, such as alpine and desert, harsh growing conditions mean it takes a long time for the trees and shrubs to regenerate. These environments cannot sustain high levels of firewood collection. Even if you are in a highly productive and resilient area, if the area is heavily frequented by campers the intensity of fuel collection may outstrip the ability of wood sources to regenerate.

Is there a fire ring or fire grate present?

It is best practice to concentrate use by building a fire in an existing fire ring or campfire scar. Repeated campfires can kill the microorganisms responsible for breaking down organic matter and sterilize the soil up to four inches deep. This results in barren dirt patches that remain without plant life for years.

Do I have enough time to properly clean up?

Low-impact techniques focus on maintaining the natural appearance of the site. Burning all wood completely to ash is recommended. Once the ash has been thoroughly saturated with water it should be scattered over a large area.

Is there a better option?

The low-impact camper or backpacker may choose to construct a pan or mound fire. Visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Education for more information about these options and for techniques to minimize the impacts of fires: http://lnt.org/programs/principles_5.php

Or you could forgo a fire altogether. Instead opt for a stove for cooking and a lantern for ambiance. Rick Curtis, an experienced low-impact backpacker, offers some sage advice: “I always plan trips with a stove, and if I find the right conditions to build a fire, I’ll think about doing it” (123).

Sources Cited:
Curtis, Rick. The Backpackers Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills. 1st ed. New York: Three Rivers, 2005. Print.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Unless something has recently changed, fire regulations in Alpine Lakes Wilderness are a bit more nuanced than what you have posted.

On the west side of the Cascades Crest, campfires are not allowed above 3,500 ft in Alpine Lakes Wilderness. On the east side, campfires are not allowed above 5,000 ft.

Sarah said...

Thank you for the tip!

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