It all began in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona, then spread into New Mexico. The campfire was evidently not properly contained nor monitored by the campers, and it escaped into nearby flammable foliage. Then all hell broke loose (if you consider hell to be a place of fire). The blaze took off and eventually cremated more than half a million acres before it was brought under containment.
Because they were responsible for all this distruction, and the costs incurred in trying to contain it, Caleb and David Malboeuf eventually ended up in court where they pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of building a campfire without clearing flammable material and leaving it unattended.
There are lessons for us in this tale of woe. To save yourself from all this grief, and possible injury or death of yourself or others, pay attention to Smokey Bear — Seriously!
- Do not build a fire when there are hazardous, dry conditions. Find out what the local fire safety designation is beforehand, and don't build a fire if the campground or the region is prohibiting open fires at the time.
- If open fires are permitted and there is an existing fire ring or pit, use it. If there's no pit or ring, find a spot at least 15 feet away from grasses, shrubs, trees or other flammable objects. Also look up, and check for low overhanging branches that present a fire hazard.
- Pick a spot that is protected from wind, so embers are not kicked up and carried on the breeze.
- Clear the ground around the fire for a distance of 10 feet in all directions, removing grass, twigs, leaves and bits of wood.
- Dig into the ground until you reach mineral soil, making sure there are no underground roots or other organic matter that might transport the fire or hold a coal.
- If there are flat rock slabs available, use them as a foundation beneath the fire. This is a special technique that can be used when the ground is wet, but can also be employed in dry conditions.
- Surround the fire pit with stones to help contain the coals and to prevent someone from accidentally kicking a burning bit out of the fire.
- Be ready to snuff out the fire at a moment's notice. A bucket of water or a shovel and a loose pile of soil (from the pit you just dug) are good things to have on hand.
- And never leave the fire unattended. Of course, that's a difficult doctrine to follow if you are in a survival situation totally alone in the wilderness. Under those conditions, if you must step away from the campsite to gather more wood, check traps, work on the shelter, or for some other reason, double-check the fire before walking away. Don't leave it with huge flames reaching up into the night sky. Tone the fire down until it's mostly coals and perhaps just a small active flame, Make sure there's nothing nearby that can catch a spark and ignite. You might even consider banking the fire by burying it under a thin layer of dry soil, preserving the coals so you can blow them back into flame upon your return.