I grew up looking forward to campfires on family trips. Someone was getting it going well before sundown, and we didn’t go to bed until the fire was on its last legs. In the morning, my dad (usually the first one awake) worked the remaining coals to get a smaller version going until it was time for breakfast. My brother took pride in being an expert stick-collector. Marshmallows and s’mores were a staple, as was sitting in front of the concrete firepit with a stick in hand, just to watch the tip burn down. Campfires were synonymous with camping. It was a given that we were going to have one. Like brushing your teeth before bed or having a cake on your birthday, a campfire was just part of it—a ritual.
Growing up, my family wasn’t made up of backpackers or climbers or backcountry skiers, but I do feel lucky to have been introduced to camping at a young age. A couple times every summer we packed up the pop-up and picked out a state park somewhere in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. During my youth, on the East Coast in the late ’90s, campfires were never in question or threatened. But now I live out west at a time when wildfire seasons are getting consistently longer and more intense. Here in Colorado, fire bans through the majority of the summer have become the norm. So now, most of my summertime camping trips feature a firepit that sits undisturbed—probably for good reason.
Last year, someone’s escaped campfire set off a 1,000-plus-acre wildfire in North Carolina. A 190-acre wildfire just outside Boulder, Colorado, started the same way, forcing the evacuation of 20,000 people. Humans start 84% of wildfires, and a study from the U.S. Forest Service and National Interagency Fire Center attributed nearly a third of all human-caused wildfires on Forest Service land between 2006 and 2015 to campfires. As climate change has altered weather patterns and resulted in hotter and drier summers across the country (primarily the Mountain West, though the East has seen similar patterns), that risk has only increased.
Even during the brief window when they are legal, for me having a campfire these days often comes with more anxiety and paranoia than enjoyment. A fire may technically be allowed, but a stray puff of wind or errant ember seems more treacherous than before. According to John Cataldo, Yellowstone National Park’s wildland fire and aviation officer, that’s not a bad way to think about it.
“There tends to be a bit of a lag in fire restrictions,” Cataldo says. “So it’s incumbent on recreators to take that extra step to be conscientious about what they’re doing on the landscape.” According to him, fire restrictions aren’t typically regionally specific, instead looking at the risks across huge swaths of land. In Yellowstone particularly, restrictions apply to either the entire front- or backcountry, rather than specific regions, trails or valleys.
That means campers are the first line of defense, and are responsible for making decisions based on the microclimate they find themselves in. “I do think a little paranoia is justified,” Cataldo says, but notes that people like him take activating restrictions very seriously.
But Cataldo says that even he hasn’t totally given up on the campfire. “I’m probably the most paranoid campfire person out there,” he says. On certain occasions, however, he still plans to have one. For starters, the fire pits that are built in designated frontcountry campgrounds—in Yellowstone and elsewhere—are “pretty bombproof,” according to him. Those areas have far less combustible material around than campsites in the backcountry, and the fire pits were specifically designed to limit the risk of the fire escaping. Consequently, these areas typically see fire restrictions implemented later than they are in the backcountry.
Even away from frontcountry campgrounds, Cataldo says it’s still possible to have a fire under the right conditions. Maybe the easiest way to keep a fire manageable is to keep it small. “A little fire can go a long way,” he says. If conditions change, “they’re just easy to put out and get under control.”
“In general, if there are no restrictions in place, visitors can still help out by having campfires only in designated fire rings and following Smokey Bear’s rules to make sure your campfire is dead out before you leave the area,” says Tina Boehle, the National Park Service’s branch chief of Communications for fire and aviation. “Being responsible with fire will definitely prevent parks from implementing widespread or permanent campfire bans.”
The fact of the matter is that fire restrictions are becoming more and more common. “In the face of climate change and the warming, drying climate in general, I think we are going to see a trend [of morefire restrictions],” Cataldo says. “We’re going to reach the thresholds for implementing restrictions perhaps earlier than we would have in decades past.”
Regardless of the circumstances, we’re almost always taking a risk by starting a campfire. In 2021, roughly 59,000 wildfires across the U.S. burned more than 7.1 million acres. Nearly 6,000 structures were lost (which was down significantly from the almost 18,000 structures lost in 2020). Many of those lead to fatalities. If that weren’t enough, wildfires regularly close massive swaths of public land to recreation for months at a time: first as the fire is dealt with, then as the ecosystem recovers and stabilizes.
Authorities say that as long as you commit to following safety guidelines, don’t completely give up on the tradition: In many circumstances, the odds of your small campfire escaping to add to wildfire statistics are admittedly minimal. At other times, the risk is so great that campfires are banned outright, so there’s no need to decide whether to make one or not. Those “in between” times are when campfire decisions feel like a roll of the dice.
Is it time for us to unilaterally decide not to have campfires anymore? That’s something for each individual camper to decide. But it’s obvious that our need to be safe has changed the campfire’s status as a staple of camping.
For me, a fire’s no longer a given. I’ve always felt a little disappointment when, after a camping trip, the smell of campfire on my clothes eventually faded into the smells of the real world. That might just be something we all need to get used to.