A toasty, crackling campfire is one of the great joys of camping. However, it is important to treat fire with respect. Forest fires are often caused by out-of-control campfires, and campers who light fires are responsible both for using them safely and for making sure that they put them out properly when they retire for the night or when they are packing up to leave camp.
Many people think that a campfire can be extinguished simply by covering it with dirt. However, this is a misconception. If the ashes of the fire are still warm when they are buried they may continue to smolder underground, and have the potential to cause ground fires which will spread through underground vegetation. Ground fires can destroy valuable underground organisms, seeds and fungi, and even kill trees by destroying their roots. In addition, they may continue to burn underground for weeks, and there is always a danger that they a ground fire may erupt into a dangerous surface or crown fire.
The best way to make sure that a campfire is put completely out is to douse it with water. The U.S. Forest Service recommends letting the fire burn down completely, knocking ashes and embers from any logs that remain in the fire pit, and then thoroughly soaking all the logs and ashes in the fire pit with water. Even though a fire may appear to already be out, the ashes are likely to smoke and hiss, thus indicating that heat is still present. If this happens, the camper should continue to add more water until the hissing stops. Then the ashes should be stirred around with a shovel or stick and soaked again before checking that everything is cold to the touch. Only then can the ashes be safely buried.
If there is not enough water available to douse the fire several times, it is possible to shovel dirt or sand into the embers. However, the dirt should not be used to bury the ashes. Instead, the dirt should be mixed and stirred into the ashes until everything is cool to the touch.
In winter camping conditions when there is more than an inch of snow on the ground no further precautions are necessary once visible flames have been extinguished because the snow will melt into and douse any remaining hot ashes. However, U.S. Forest Service procedures should be followed in all other camping situations.
In addition, campers in wilderness areas are encouraged to practice leave-no-trace camping. The preferable leave-no-trace option is regarded as using a small gas camp stove rather than a camp fire. However, if a fire is lit, the best campfire practice is to light a very small fire using only downed wood. When putting out the fire all the wood used should be burned to ash, and all unburned trash and food should be removed before dousing the fire. Campers who wish to remove traces of the fire by burying it should, of course, ensure that the ashes are completely dead before doing so.
And always remember that it is vitally important to be aware of the dangers of forest fires, and always err on the side of caution when putting out campfires.