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The Green Life: Ask Mr. Green: What's the Deal with Campfires?

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June 27, 2012

Ask Mr. Green: What's the Deal with Campfires?

Bob Schildgen is Mr Green

Hey Mr. Green,

I’ve been a long-time lover of the campfire tradition, but discovered that even the cleanest burning wood fire releases toxic material into the air. So the good ol’ summer campfire may be just as hazardous to the lungs as breathing secondhand cigarette smoke, and for those downwind who already have asthma, chemical sensitivities, COPD, or are cancer survivors, this is a recipe for misery. —Linda in Edmonton, Alberta

I too love a roaring campfire. Being creatures that play with fire and that take great comfort in crackling flames and smoky flavors, we could contend that we’re hard-wired for campfires and that they’re conducive to mental health and social harmony. But then we might be hard-wired for all sorts of mayhem, so this is a fairly lame defense of fires.

But before you even consider a campfire, you must first check to find out if they’re even permitted. In many places, especially dry or heavily used areas, campfires are flat-out illegal. Where fires are allowed, minimal burning is best, even if nobody nearby has the kind of health problems you mention. If you’re doing much cooking, it’s always best to take a Coleman or other stove, and make sure you know how to use it properly. After all, the dead wood you gather for the fire might seem useless, but in fact it’s a key part of a forest system. It fertilizes the forest floor and creates a rich habitat for tiny animals, insects, and gazillions of bacteria and fungi at the bottom of the food chain that ultimately nurtures the whole sylvan scene.

And please, if you do build a fire, don’t throw any garbage or anything else on it, because that can immensely increase the substantial pollution that burning wood emits. It’s astounding how much trash people will consign to a fire. Some happy, hungover campers have actually asked me if it was acceptable to cremate their aluminum beer cans after carousing in the great outdoors. Um, no.

Finally, follow cardinal rule of camping: Leave no trace. Make like an Old West fugitive of the hard-riding posse and cover all carbon scars on the ground. To get deeper into matters of optimal outdoor practices, check out the Colorado-based organization called Leave No Trace or the National Outdoor Leadership School.

 Got a question? Ask Mr. Green!

 

--photo by Lori Eanes

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