Photo by Sue Misao

Photo by Sue Misao


Campfires OK on state campgrounds west of Cascade crest; still banned in Eastern Washington

Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark lifted the ban on campfires and recreational fires in approved fire pits in developed campgrounds west of the Cascade crest as of Thursday (Aug. 15). All outdoor burning, including campfires, is still prohibited on state lands in Eastern Washington.

The change applies only in state, county and other campgrounds on forest lands under Department of Natural Resources management west of the Cascades. All other outdoor burning is still banned in Western Washington.

“Recent rainfall and forecasts of milder temperatures, higher humidity and further precipitation have abated the risk in the western region. However, I urge everyone to remain vigilant regarding wildfire danger throughout the state,” said Goldmark.


By Marcy Stamper

Even with high-tech weather forecasts and extensive knowledge of local conditions, fire managers often struggle to balance the interests of campers, loggers and other forest users with tinder-dry forests and limited resources for fighting fires.

The process starts in the spring with evaluations of the mountain snowpack, long-range weather outlooks, and a check-up of forest health. By mid-summer, land managers involved in fire protection have briefings several times each week – sometimes even daily – to decide when to issue burn bans or change precaution levels.

But depending on the agency, the process leads to different outcomes. There is a complete ban on all outdoor burning – including campfires – on state land, but at U.S. Forest Service lands and campgrounds in and around the Methow Valley, the only restrictions as of Tuesday (Aug. 13) affected firewood cutting. Campfires are still permitted at developed campgrounds and in dispersed campsites in the Forest.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued its ban on outdoor burning starting July 1 and upped it to include campfires on July 30. The ban is in effect through Sept. 30.

The campfire ban disappointed campers at Pearrygin Lake State Park, where parking signs and even bathroom doors are posted with notices of the total burn ban.

Heather Jameson and Guy Litts of Lynnwood, camping at Pearrygin Lake State Park, were disappointed that the ban on campfires reduced opportunities for socializing. Even the gas grill they brought wasn’t permitted. Photo by Marcy Stamper

Heather Jameson and Guy Litts of Lynnwood, camping at Pearrygin Lake State Park, were disappointed that the ban on campfires reduced opportunities for socializing. Even the gas grill they brought wasn’t permitted. Photo by Marcy Stamper

“It’s changed the whole experience – we’re more separate because we’re not around the campfire,” said Heather Jameson, visiting with family and friends from Lynnwood. Jameson’s friend Crystal Litts agreed. “The experience is different, but I don’t want firefighters to get hurt. I think it’s OK, much as I miss it.”

The campfire ban is unusual, but this is the second year in a row with a complete prohibition on campfires on all state lands, including parks and Department of Fish and Wildlife properties, said Janet Pearce, DNR’s communications manager for wildfire.

The all-out ban has provoked public feedback, said Pearce, who received dozens of calls last week from people upset that they could not have a campfire.

“I completely understand – camping is not the same without a fire,” said Pearce, who acknowledged that the ban may seem excessive, particularly to people from the “wet side” of the state.

With night temperatures in the Methow warmer than usual this summer, the primary impact on campers is social. “Campfires are what brings the family around the campfire – marshmallows and all that,” said Guy Litts of Lynnwood.

“Of course it’s changed our visit – but we knew ahead of time,” said Phyllis Holden from Mt. Vernon, who has reserved five adjacent campsites at Pearrygin with friends for 20 years. “Everyone goes to bed a lot earlier.”

“We always appreciate a fire, but there’s still a lot to enjoy. I would rather see trees than a whole scorched hillside,” said Tim Dahl, visiting Pearrygin from North Bend. They knew in advance about the campfire restrictions, “but the ban on briquettes for barbecues caught us off guard,” he said. They bought a gas stove in town to be able to cook.

Conditions on Forest Service lands have not prompted the same restrictions. The valley bottom dries out sooner than most Forest Service lands, which still have some moisture from spring rains and recent thunderstorms, said Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu. “People like to have campfires – if we don’t have to restrict that, why would we?” he said.

Last year, after big lightning storms in early September, all campfires were banned in developed campgrounds the Methow Valley Ranger District, in part because firefighting resources were stretched so thin, said Matt Castle, deputy fire staff for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Even with such a ban, fires are typically still allowed in dispersed campgrounds and in wilderness areas, he said.

Okanogan County issued its own burn ban on July 2.


Human-caused fires on state lands

In the past three years, a quarter of wildfires on state land were traced to campfires – more than to lightning strikes, according to statistics from DNR, which is responsible for fire management of approximately 9 million acres of state, tribal and forested private lands. The last year when more fires were started by lightning was 2009.

In all, human-caused fires (which includes those started by arson, debris burning and logging) account for 90 percent of those on state land, said Pearce. With resources already stretched thin, agency policy is to take precautionary measures early, prevent fires and save taxpayer money, she said.

Although there is a perception that statewide burn bans have become more sweeping, from the 1940s through the 1960s, DNR’s ban typically started in May, said Bob Redling, senior communications manager for the agency. They were extra-cautious because weather forecasts were less sophisticated and they didn’t have helicopters to fight fires, he said.


Weighing risks

With fresh memories of serious fires over the past decade, Castle acknowledged that asking ‘Why take any risk at all?’ was a natural question. The easy solution would be to close or limit campfires, but the Forest Service has few problems with them, he said. Agency managers apply sound judgment and good science in making decisions and take a harder look at precautions as risks increase, he said.

Decisions about industrial precautions involve multiple agencies, but the Forest Service has more independence to make decisions about campfires, said Castle. They study data from weather stations, look at fuel conditions and rely on local knowledge, said Castle. “We try to find a balance of managing risks.”

In July, industrial precaution levels in most of the county were raised to limit use of chainsaws after 1 p.m. and require a one-hour fire watch, in addition to a fire extinguisher and shovel.


Education dollars cut

Resources for prevention and education have dwindled on both the state and federal levels. DNR used to have prevention teams in the field, and they still try to deploy people on July 4 and Labor Day, but they no longer have time to visit schools on a regular basis, said Pearce.

The Forest Service also had a prevention specialist who talked with people in the woods and at campgrounds until about five years ago, when the position was abolished, said Shannon O’Brien, public affairs specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

The Forest Service continues to do prevention work in schools, runs ads featuring Smokey the Bear, and has considerable literature at ranger stations and a video and instructions for safely extinguishing a fire on its website.


Local fire update

Despite an intense thunderstorm over the weekend, there were few problems with fire starts in the county, according to Okanogan County Emergency Manager Scott Miller. Firefighters brought a blaze near Carlton under control and are fighting small fires near Oroville and Tonasket.

The most serious fires in the area are near Wenatchee. There is another complex on the Colville Reservation near Nespelem.

Lightning storms also ignited several fires in North Cascades National Park, most controlled or showing little activity, according to a status report on Tuesday (Aug. 13).


Campfire safety tips

Campfires should be built in established fire rings, tended at all times and put out completely before breaking camp. To completely extinguish a campfire, it must be stirred with adequate amounts of dirt and water until it is cold to the touch of a bare hand.

• Use an existing fire ring.

• Remove all flammable materials such as needles, leaves and sticks from the area near the ring.

• Keep the campfire small.

• Keep plenty of water and a shovel nearby for throwing dirt on the fire if it gets out of control.

• Never leave a campfire unattended.


To put out a campfire

• First, drown the campfire with water.

• Next, mix the ashes and embers with soil, and scrape all partially burned sticks and logs to make sure all the hot embers are off them.

• Stir the embers after they are covered with water and make sure that everything is wet.

• Feel the coals, embers, and any partially burned wood with your hands. Everything (including the rock fire ring) should be cool to the touch.

• When you think you are done, take an extra minute and add more water.

• If it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.


Fire risks

In addition to obvious fire hazards such as campfires and fireworks, the state Department of Natural Resources warns people not to park vehicles in dry, grassy areas, since residual heat from exhaust systems can ignite the grass.

Other lesser-known risks are from refueling lawn mowers without giving the engine a chance to cool down; using metal blades on brush cutters, which can spark if they hit a rock; welding near dry vegetation; and target shooting at rocks or metal in dry vegetation, according to DNR.

Having a defensible space of well-irrigated vegetation around residences is also important to protect a residence.

Courtesy U.S. Forest Service and Department of Natural Resources.