Minimize Campfire Impacts

How to to minimize the impacts of fires

From one small spark a bushfire grows.
Sellers of misery are our foes.
Merging ruthlessly tongues of flame.
Point your finger at those to blame. Paul Anthony

Campfires can be a wonderful way of bringing a bushwalking group together to keep warm and cook food on, but it’s impossible to have a fire without leaving some trace of being there.

Campfires leave a scar behind on the earth, and the scar can take considerable time to disappear depending on the habitat. Lighting a fire involves complete removal of firewood that may provide valuable habitat for wildlife in that system (e.g. nesting birds, invertebrates). Fires also increase the risk of bushfire which not only can be fatal for humans and human infrastructure but wildlife too.

Alternative options to campfires
Think about the reasons for wanting to light a campfire. Is it for cooking? For a cup of tea? To provide light? Or simply to have a social gathering?

Stoves have improved immensely in the last couple of decades and produce boiling water far quicker than a campfire can. Lightweight stoves can be less than 150g (not including fuel) and can boil enough water for a few cups of tea in less than 2 minutes. Don’t leave a stove unattended, and make sure it’s fully out before going to bed. On shorter day walks, consider using a thermos or cold food that can be eaten cold.

LED lanterns are excellent sources of light and ideal for car camping trips. Again, they’re much more effective sources of light than a fire. On overnight bushwalking trips use head torches and lightweight solar powered lanterns for light. Alternatively, use candles, but make sure they are always attended and extinguished before going to bed.

Total Fire Ban Days
There are strict rules about what is allowed and not allowed on total fire ban days.
DO NOT LIGHT A FIRE on total fire ban days. In NSW and some other states, portable fuel stoves are also banned on total fire ban days.

In NSW The Rural Fire Service Commissioner may decide to issue a Total Fire Ban when conditions become sufficiently dangerous. Generally, this is when conditions make it hard to contain a fire (i.e. sufficiently hot and windy) and fire risk to natural areas and human life become high. A decision to enforce a total fire ban is usually made during the afternoon and is effective from midnight for 24 hours. If conditions get worse, a total fire ban may be issued on the actual day.

Check conditions on the Rural Fire Service website before the trip and know the risks and how to respond if caught in a bushfire.

Fuel Stove only areas
Some natural areas are fuel stove only areas, meaning that no campfires are allowed, and cooking must be done on fuel stoves instead.

Land managers designate fuel stove only areas to reduce bushfire risk, to prevent depletion of wood supplies and to protect natural values. This is true for most of the Tasmanian natural areas where peat fires can smoulder underground for months and are hard to extinguish.

Check out what rules apply to the natural area before leaving on the walk.

How to have a minimal impact campfire
If, after all this, the group still decides to have a campfire, follow these tips to have minimal impact.

Selecting a fire location and collecting wood:

  1. Choose a clear location where the wind will blow flames away from tents and vegetation. Remove all dry tinder.
  2. Where possible, use existing fire scars. Never use a rock surface as it leaves behind a scar that doesn’t fade.
  3. Don’t surround the fire with rocks: the rocks get damaged and/or can explode.
  4. Don’t cut down live branches: use dead and fallen wood.

Maintaining the fire:

  1. Never leave the fire unattended.
  2. Keep the fire small.
  3. Make sure there is enough water supplies to put out the fire at any stage.

Extinguishing the fire and leaving minimal trace:

  1. Fires must be completely extinguished before leaving or going to bed. This means the fire must be completely cold and nothing left smouldering. The best way to put out a fire completely is to douse it with water.
  2. Disperse any firewood back to where it was naturally found.
  3. In wilderness areas, scatter all traces of the fire.

Smoking is now banned in all NSW national parks and offenders are subject to on-the-spot fines. Parks aims to reduce littering, the risk of bushfires and offer a healthy natural environment to visitors. Smoking bans also apply to many other outdoor areas too under the Smoke-Free Environmental Act 2000: check the rules before lighting up.

Smoking bans in National Parks do not currently extend to e-cigarettes. Smoking is also permitted in some commercially licenced areas.

Bushwalkers should consider other options to smoking on a bushwalk (e.g. e-cigarettes, nicotine patches, gum etc.). If they still choose to smoke on a walk, they should move downwind from the rest of the group, and use a tupperware box to contain used cigarette butts and ash securely. They must carry out all rubbish. Note that irresponsible disposal of cigarette butts on a total fire ban day is an offence, with heavy fines and jail sentences.

Further Reading References for minimizing impacts of campfires

McClelland, Matt. Bushwalking and bushfires [online]. Nature New South Wales, Vol. 57, No. 4, Summer 2013: 18-19

Bradstock, Ross Andrew, Jann Elizabeth Williams, and A. Malcolm Gill, eds.Flammable Australia: the fire regimes and biodiversity of a continent. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Abbott, Ian, and N. Burrows. “Aboriginal fire regimes in south-west Western Australia: evidence from historical documents.” Fire in ecosystems of south-west Western Australia: impacts and management. Symposium proceedings (Volume I), Perth, Australia, 16-18 April 2002.. Backhuys Publishers, 2003.

Is it safe to walk by Matt McClelland, article from BWA emagazine, December 2013

Should I postpone my walk by Matt McClelland, article from BWA emagazine, December 2014