Case For Killing The Campfire

Outdoor tradition or dangerous, polluting, wasteful relic of the past?
Wes Siler
Early on the morning of August 17, 2013, Keith Matthew Emerald found himself cold and hungry following a hunt in a remote section of the Sierra Nevada, near Yosemite National Park. So he did what countless generations of outdoorsmen before him have done—he started a campfire. Nine weeks later, the wildfire that resulted would finally be extinguished at a cost of $127 million. Scorching a total of 400 square miles, the Rim Fire was the third-largest wildfire in California’s history.
Will you be able to enjoy a fire on your next camping trip? For residents of California, Oregon, and Washington, the likely answer is already no. For much of this summer, most wilderness areas in those three states were under a total campfire ban. Outside of the metal fire rings in organized campgrounds, you could not have a fire on public land. With the West Coast’s drought thought to be long-lasting, next summer will see similar if not even further-reaching restrictions—especially as these states face massive shortfalls in firefighting budgets.
But the risk and cost of wildfires is only one nail in the campfire’s coffin. And that means they could also be at risk in areas less prone to conflagration. Let’s look at the problems campfires cause.
Pollution
Wood smoke contains fine particles of unburnt wood. That may not sound like pollution, but reduced in size to 2.5 microns or less, these microscopic particles become toxic. Wood smoke also contains benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acrolein, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In Washington, wood smoke creates an estimated 51 percent of the state’s fine-particle pollution in winter. Most of this is due to wood-burning stoves, but outdoor fires remain a significant contributor.
These toxic residues can also end up in water sources as fire ash leaches into the ground or is swept into them by rain.
Smoke from campfires can also lead to visible haze in high-use areas like the national parks.
Health Problems
As nice as we all think wood smoke smells, inhaling all of the above isn’t good for you. The list of effects wood smoke has on your health: irritated eyes, throat, sinus, and lungs; headaches; reduced lung function; lung inflammation and swelling; increased risk of respiratory disease; more severe and frequent symptoms from existing lung diseases; increased risk of heart attack and stroke; chronic bronchitis and emphysema; cancer.
Washington estimates that fine-particle pollution, which again is 51 percent wood smoke, causes 1,100 deaths per year in that state alone. The health problems it causes cost the state $190 million annually.
Litter
Campfires leave behind charred wood, piles of ash, and blackened rocks. People often use them to burn trash, which may only be partially destroyed, frequently leaving behind remnants of cans, bottles, plastic, and foil. This may not sound like a huge issue, but in high-use areas, fire rings and the aforementioned detritus quickly become blights on the natural landscape and create additional work for maintenance crews.
Tree Damage
We all know we’re supposed to harvest only dead, fallen wood for our campfires. But in large volumes, removing even that stuff can cause problems. Dead logs and other wood may be essential habitat for insects, birds, reptiles, and small mammals. Dead wood increases soil’s water-holding ability, and removing it may lead to erosion.
And we know that wood gathering frequently goes beyond the dead and the fallen. Visit any popular campsite and you’ll find trees denuded of low branches or scorched by nearby fires. In areas where plant growth is very slow—high alpine environments, deserts, arctic tundra—wood regeneration may not be able to keep up with campfire demand.
Invasive Species
Firewood that you harvest or buy can be home to invasive species like the Asian long-horned beetle. Moving firewood can introduce the beetles to a new environment and threaten native trees in that area. An act as simple as throwing a few logs from your backyard into the back of your truck and driving up to the mountains for a campout can cause irreversible damage to the environment you’re trying to enjoy.
Injury
There’s no national tally of campfire-related injuries, but a study in Oklahoma found that 57 people were injured and one person was killed due to campfires in a ten-year period. And it’s not just ongoing fires that can injure people: embers cause 70 percent of campfire injuries after a fire is supposedly extinguished.