The bulk of the credit for the fire’s relative containment is due to better technology, research and wildfire-fighting science than was available at the time those terrible fires raged—to say nothing of the heroic, well organized, and supremely-trained fire response crews who fly, drive, hike, and parachute into the affected areas to combat the fire from every possible angle. There is however a key factor that connects the fires: their preventable and shared likely geneses, human intervention.
All of the destruction of Soberanes Fire—and the resources expended by heroic efforts imparted by wildland firefighters who battled its disastrous march up steep, secluded mountainsides—started with a single campfire set and abandoned by a careless human. If anything instructive can come from the Soberanes Fire, it’s the importance and reinforcement of good campfire safety and etiquette.
Seriously… Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires!
The first rule of thumb is of course to heed warnings: never start fires where they are banned by the town, county or state you’re camping in, or when the U.S. Forest Service gives you Smokey-the-Bear eyes. They’re very judgmental if you don’t pay attention.Where fire danger is low to moderate and there isn’t a ban in effect, responsible, attended campfires in designated campfire rings and pits can provide a charming, immersive and educational look into outdoor living and our ancestral past. And also s’mores. When fires are permitted, it is best to use developed, designated fire rings or fire pits.
If fire rings are not present, as may happen when backpacking in undeveloped areas or wilderness, and fires aren’t illegal, still use caution: fires should be as small as possible and only be started when completely necessary. Consider the surface where the fire will burn, and be sure to clear away duff, brush or other combustible material, including your shelter, from the immediate area. Before starting a fire outside of a developed fire ring take steps to minimize the fire’s impact.
Enjoy the Campfire, But Don’t Be Rude!
Whether or not a fire is created in the backcountry or in a fire pit in a designated campsite, materials that enter the fire should be entirely, naturally combustible, as with tinder, kindling, wood and charcoal. Non-combustibles or pollutants like cans, tin foil, plastic and Styrofoam shouldn’t be burned, let alone left in the pit. (Pro tip: Leave No Trace principles are helpful whether you’re tucked away in dense, wooded backcountry, or staying at a KOA. Leaving garbage for the next camper to pick up is always a disappointment and detracts from the enjoyment of nature they and we all seek when we head out for a night of sleeping under the stars.)
Fire: Wouldn’t Want to Live Without It
Fire is a necessary component of life, whether we are in the wilderness or not. It cooks our food, warms our homes, propels our cars and busses, and even provides entertainment along with its warmth, as when we enjoy fireworks or a festive Yule log. But wildfires iterate in stark terms the danger of mistaking fire as a tamed resource. In our homes and in the wilderness, fire will always have a power that requires vigilance and attention for safety. As long as we remember to be mindful of that, campfires and fireplaces will remain as integral and warming as they have been for a million years.