How to Mitigate Wildfire Risk While Recreating Outdoors

How to Mitigate Wildfire Risk

I was once told that most wildfires in the United States are human caused. The first time I was told this, I laughed and said, “yeah right!” I worked on a national forest in south-central Montana and not only did we have very few wildfires annually on our forest, but the vast majority of those were lightning caused.

However, after digging into the statistics across land ownership boundaries (federal and state managed lands, private lands and tribal lands), I discovered that yes! Almost 85% of the wildfires ignited across the United States are in fact, human caused! 

Even in the rural Montana county I lived in, although most of the wildfires on federally managed lands in that county (US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management) were lightning caused, the overwhelming majority of wildfires across the privately owned and managed lands in that same county were human caused. Most of these human caused wildfires were accidental and thus preventable too!

By being informed, careful and prepared, you can avoid contributing to the national wildfire statistics. While out recreating, there are many precautions you and your family can take to minimize your likelihood of accidentally starting a wildland fire. 

campfire burning at night within a campfire ring made of rocks. how to mitigate wildfire risk.
Campfires are a great part of the camping experience. Just be sure of the current fire restrictions, build your campfire safely and properly extinguish it before departure.

Causes of Wildlfire By Common Outdoor Recreation Activities

While there are many potential causes and scenarios which contribute to human caused wildfires, the specific human related causes most relevant to outdoor recreation enthusiasts are campfires, equipment, fireworks, smoking and children. Most of the time, these wildfires can be prevented from ever even being ignited through some basic precautions and attention to details and surroundings.

Campfire caused wild fires

Everybody loves having a campfire while camping. You can cook on a campfire, create enough heat to warm yourself and dry wet clothes, and campfires serve as a natural congregation spot for people to gather. However, escaped campfires are one of the most common causes of wildland fires!

Many years ago, while patrolling various national forest across the western states to assist with wildfire restrictions enforcement and fire prevention education, I would regularly come across abandoned campfires. In some instances, campers made no attempt at extinguishing their campfires prior to their departure; in others, their efforts at extinguishing were poor and not thorough.

Sometimes the hot embers and ashes remained contained within their campfire ring (if there was one), while in others, the campfires had escaped confinement and were beginning to burn surrounding vegetation and materials. Some basic campfire construction and safety information can go a long way in mitigating potential campfire disasters and reducing wildfire risk. 

How to Mitigate Risk of Wildfire from Campfire:

Know before you go!

In some locations, campfires are not allowed even if there are no fire restrictions in effect. In other instances, even if there is a designated metal campfire ring in which to build a campfire, current fire restrictions might prevent you from doing so.

Proper campfire site selection.

Sometimes a campfire can only be built within a designated metal campfire ring within a developed campground. If you are somewhere that allows dispersed camping and campfires, keep the following tips in mind.

Clear all flammable and organic matter away from the site, exposing the bare mineral soil (which is NOT flammable), and consider building a campfire ring with rocks. Do not build a campfire underneath a tree and select locations well away from potentially dry and flammable vegetation (grass, flowers, brush). 

Never leave your campfire unattended.

Most escaped campfires are those that are left unattended. Anything could have happened, the fire could have crept through an improperly built fire ring, the wind could have blown hot embers and sparks into nearby flammable materials, etc. Do not go to bed without extinguishing your campfire or leave the campsite thinking your campfire will, “burn itself out.”

Know what is put in your campfire.

Be careful trying to ignite a campfire with an accelerant such as gasoline or diesel, it can literally ‘backfire’ causing burn injury. Do not burn non-combustable materials or chemicals that could result in explosions or sudden flame growth. If using matches or other ignition devices, discard or turn them off properly.

Extinguish your campfire properly.

If the ashes or burnt material from your campfire are too hot to touch, the campfire is still to hot to be left. Always use a tool such as a shovel to stir water and dirt within your campfire ring. The creation of a muddy slurry within your campfire ring will help to both cool hot materials and smother any remaining flames. 

Have a backup plan.

When campfires are banned, some stoves may still be allowed if fire restrictions do not ban them as well. Consider the Magma Crossover Firebox and Grill or these camping stoves as an option to heat or cook food. If all the above are restricted due to fire restrictions, consider these no cook meal options while camping or recreating

Abandones campfire smoldering within metal ring.
I once came across this abandoned campfire that was still smoldering within a metal campfire ring. Luckily it did not escape and cause a wildfire!


Other than escaped and abandoned campfires, wildfires caused by equipment use, misuse  and/or malfunction are also quite common. Here I am referring to all types of equipment that outdoor recreationists may be using- trucks, cars, ATVs, UTVs, dirt bikes, motorcycles, trailers, campers, and even chainsaws. There are many different contributing factors to wildfires by equipment to keep in mind. 

First, any type of equipment which is driven by a motor has the capability to get hot, potentially overheat, expel hot exhaust particles and/or metal fragments if it does not have a functional spark arrestor. It also likely has a muffler which can become super heated as well.

My first summer working as a rangeland technician for the Bureau of Land Management, some fellow range technicians accidentally ignited a rangeland fire and burnt their truck while out monitoring rangeland health. They drove off the designated road, through tall dry grass collecting dry material under the truck. The dry material came into contact with the hot undercarriage of the truck, ignited, and caught the surrounding dry vegetation and vehicle on fire. 

Similar accidents can occur with any kind of vehicle, whether it is a car, UTV, ATV or motorcycle. Similarly, outdoor recreationists out cutting campfire wood or clearing trails should keep in mind that the muffler of a chainsaw gets very hot during and after use, and it is good practice to not leave a chainsaw sitting in dry vegetation after use. Additionally, it is prudent to wait and monitor the area one has been cutting in to make sure not fires are accidentally ignited.

Equipment servicing and maintenance goes a long way in mitigating unwanted wildfires. Wildfires can accidentally be started by equipment malfunctions such as brake, tire, bearing or wheel failures. If you are towing a camper trailer, horse trailer, boat or UTV/ATV trailer, remember to inspect and service the trailer regularly as well.

Also remember to check the safety chains that attach between your vehicle and bumper pull trailers that rely on a ball hitch. Make sure they are not too long and dragging on the ground. The dragging chain causes friction and sparks along the roadway, and if roadside vegetation is dry, you could unknowingly be creating multiple road side spot fires that could grow into many or one really large wildfire.

How to Mitigate Risk of Wildfire from Equipment:

Stay on designated roads and parking areas.

Do not take the risk of driving a vehicle or equipment of any sort through, tall and/or dry vegetation during hot and windy weather conditions. Always park in a designated parking spot to avoid accidentally starting a wildfire. 

Inspect and service equipment, vehicles and trailers regularly to avoid equipment malfunctions and failures.

If towing a trailer, be sure the trailer is properly connected and secured and that the safety chains are not so long that they will drag along the roadway.

Monitor your area.

If you have been driving or operating equipment in dry and hot conditions, monitor the area prior to departure to make sure you haven’t accidentally ignited a wildfire.

female firefighter pointing to "one less spark one less wildfire" logo on truck.
My former co-worker on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Mark Thibideau, is the creator of the national “One Less Spark, One Less Wildfire,” campaign. He recognized that many of the wildfires along the I-5 corridor in the Sacramento Canyon were associated with equipment and his vision was to prevention or limit losses due to unwanted wildfires with a proactive cooperative approach.

Smoking causes wildfires

Smoking and the improper discard of smoking materials can actually be the cause of large wildland fires when the conditions are prime for burning. This is why smoking is specifically addressed in many fire restrictions. Some fire restrictions on federal lands identify designated smoking areas, making it illegal to smoke elsewhere on public lands while under fire restrictions. 

The environmental factors that can lead to wildfires caused by improperly discarded cigarettes, smoking devices or ashes include: fine and loosely arranged fuels (dry grass, small dry and loosely piled sticks or even pine needles, etc), hot ambient air temperatures (80+ degree Fahrenheit), and relative humidity (air moisture) less than 22%. 

How to Mitigate Risk of Wildfire from Smoking:

Know before you go.

Stage 1 fire restrictions often address smoking and limit the areas where it is allowed. Whether there are fire restrictions in effect or not, only smoke in areas clear of dry, flammable materials.

Discard properly.

Whether you have a cigarette, joint or pipe of some sort, make sure the hot, ignited material is extinguished properly through either adequate moisture or smothering.

Children causing wildfires

Let’s face it, if you have kids, you know they are curious beings, and sometimes these curious beings while exploring their world may accidentally ignite a wildfire. Whether they stumble across an unattended lighter, matches, fireworks or are trying to burn newspaper with their new spy glass, accidents happen. 

Depending upon the age and comprehension level of the youth you are recreating outdoors with, will affect what precautions should be taken. Some youth respond well to education and instruction, while with others it is best to eliminate the temptations by keeping all ignition devices safely locked up and never leaving mischievous youth unattended. 

In my family, both my husband and I worked in wildland fire management and prescribed fire management for many years. We regularly practice controlled burning across our hay fields for pasture improvement to eliminate certain weeds, dead vegetation from the previous season and to put nitrogen back into the soil.

My kids are regularly involved with our prescribed burning and we don’t want them to fear fire, so we are heavy with the instruction and education. I also drive home that if they come across any of our firing equipment (matches, torches, lighters, etc), they are not to touch it without mom or dad nearby, otherwise they will lose their responsibilities that they are so proud of. 

How to Mitigate Risk of Wildfire from Children:

Instruction and education.

Explain how something could cause an unwanted wildfire and why one would be a bad scenario. With older or more responsible youth, teach them safe ways to start a campfire (always with adult supervision) and how to properly extinguish one as well. 

Proper storage of firing devices.

Keep firing devices safely stored when not in use and never leave children unattended with incendiary devices.

young boy assisting with a controlled burn to improve hay pasture.
Children are naturally curious and are interested in fire although they may not understand some of the negative and unwanted impacts. Keep all ignition devices safely stored when not in use and take the opportunity to show and teach them what is safe and what is not.

Fireworks cause forest fires

I remember one New Year’s Eve growing up in Alaska, my family was celebrating the new year by launching fireworks into the sky off my uncle’s deck. One of the fireworks launched more horizontally rather than vertically and ended up launching directly into my uncle’s hay pasture.

It had been an unusually warm and dry winter, so snow cover was patchy and limited. The exposed dry grass immediately caught fire and would have continued spreading had it not been for the small patches of snow that stopped the flames progress. Whether it is summer or winter, always be careful with fireworks!

How to Mitigate Risk of Wildfire from Fireworks:

Celebrate with fireworks safely and responsibly.

Follow all safety guidelines regarding the ignition and launch of fireworks. Do not launch fireworks from, within or nearby a location with dry and potentially very receptive and volatile materials. Keep in mind if planning to recreate on public lands (national forests, national parks, wildlife refuge, etc), the discharge of fireworks is NEVER allowed.

young girl excited to watch 4th of July fireworks.
To keep fireworks safe and fun fo all, follow all safety precautions and be cognizant of the potential flammable materials around you.

You can help prevent wild fires

Wildfires seem to gain more and more press coverage every year in the media. Hopefully through outreach and engagement within the outdoor recreation community, responsible and thoughtful outdoor enthusiasts will work together as a community to mitigate the risk of wildfires caused accidentally by outdoor recreationists.

Getting outside during fire season is already hard enough, the outdoor community can lead the way in mitigating wildfire risk.

helicopter flying over large wildfire in forest.
Recreate outdoors safely this summer and don’t add to the national wildfire statistics!

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How to Mitigate Wildfire Risk While Recreating Outdoors

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  • Being outside everyday is a lifestyle choice for Domo and her family. She got hooked on mountain running in high school, then stayed outside exploring the mountains and woods as a wildland firefighter, and later as a Natural Resources educator for Montana State University Extension. These days, she can be found wrangling her borderline feral children (Maverick (3) and Ruthiemay (1)) on the farm, or exploring nearby trails of the west. Everything this mountain to farm mama loves is at the end of a dirt road, and besides exploring rural stretches of the west, her passions are art, conservation and agriculture. Sustainable agriculture depends upon healthy natural resources and art communicates where words fail; we realize the true value of conservation when we get outside and let our imagination soar.

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