As summer approaches, we’re dusting off tents and planning escapes into the wilderness. Warm weather makes us crave those classic camping experiences: cooking on an open fire, warming our hands over the coals, roasting s’mores under a star-filled sky, and….okay, there’s a theme going on here. Many of the iconic images we have of camping involve a campfire. It makes perfect sense, of course. Building a fire can provide tons of fun while subliminally connecting us to our hunter-gatherer roots. But with recent wildfires claiming lives, structures, and entire swaths of forest across the country, lighting a fire in the woods isn’t something to be taken lightly.
Wildfires, in and of themselves, aren’t inherently negative. They’re a natural part of the ecosystem in certain regions (like southern California) and healthy for the vegetation there. Fire clears low-lying brush, adds nutrients to the soil, and causes some species of native plants to seed and flower. The key word is natural. That means without modern human intervention. According to the National Park Service, nearly 85 percent of wildland fires are caused by people. That’s 61,375 fires a year, as per the National Interagency Fire Center — a number which is likely to rise as more and more people crowd into highly fire-susceptible areas.
“We have 70 million people living in the state of California,” says Dr. Martha Witter, a fire ecologist for the National Park Service. “We have more people that are spread further through the landscape. The probability of having an ignition that could lead to a fire has increased with the increase of people.”
Since 1940, there’s been a 1000% increase in properties on land prone to wildfires. Put simply: the more of us there are living, driving, working, and recreating in wildfire risk zones, the more likely it is for an untended campfire, electrical spark, or small, controlled burn to grow out of control. So as much as we love exploring the country and highly recommend taking some time to disconnect from city life this summer, we also want to be sure everyone is doing so safely and responsibly.
If you plan on a camping trip, or perhaps living the #VanLife for a few months, these are the sins to avoid.
The Camping Sin: Driving onto areas with dry brush or weeds.
The #VanLife is the kind of off-the-grid living we love (both to take part in and to scroll through on Instagram), but it’s a mistake to think that just because your house is mobile, you can park anywhere.
“A lot of fires start by roadside ignitions, so a hot catalytic converter,” Dr. Witter says. “People shouldn’t drive off the side of the road into dry vegetation with a hot car. Stay away from the vegetation.”
Make sure you’re parking in designated RV areas or campgrounds. If you’re on BLM land, be certain that you know the fire risk and safety regulations for the area. When in doubt, talk to a park ranger or contact the Bureau of Land Management about safe places to set up camp. BLM also has a website showing risk areas. Make sure your car has cooled down when parked, and always carry a fire extinguisher inside.