The cutting down of living or dead standing trees is irresponsible, poor camping behaviour and will lead to fines if you’re caught
Campfires and camping just seem to complement each other. As the song goes, ‘you can’t have one without the other’. Well, you can of course, but bush camps are definitely enhanced by the warmth and atmosphere of a good fire – not to mention the possibility of some fantastic, back to basics cooking. But how do you get a fire going, and what are the safety implications of having a fire burning out in the scrub?
Legally a campfire must not be lit or be allowed to remain alight on a total fire ban day, and for logical reasons, the same rule should apply on any hot or windy day where there’s a chance the fire can get out of control. A fire may be lit for cooking or warmth in many state forests and national parks throughout Australia, but some additional, regional rules often apply. Blanket seasonal restrictions are mandated in some areas, and geographical boundaries may come into effect (for example above the tree line in Alpine Australia), so campers need to make themselves aware of any area specific rules before lighting any fires in the bush.
In addition, the use of specifically provided fireplaces is usually insisted upon, or in their absence, the use of a properly constructed fire pit may be allowed. Rules require a campfire in either setting to be no greater than a certain size, and in either situation, be no bigger than one square metre in area. Guidelines such as these preclude the potentially hazardous act of burning large tree limbs in half. The area where the campfire is to be built should be free of twigs and leaf litter for at least a six-metre radius, and clear of any overhanging, low vegetation that could potentially catch alight. A fire pit should be dug 300 mm deep if supplied fireplaces or pits are non-existent, and only where campfires are permitted. Avoid being tempted to ring the pit with rocks of any kind – especially river rocks that can explode into sharp, flying fragments due to internal pockets of water, which converts into steam when the rocks get hot.
Building a fire
Getting a fire established can be quite the process that varies from futile at times to downright dangerous! The key ingredients for fire building are dry kindling plus a suitable lighting substrate of paper, bracken, gum leaves or shop bought firelighters. Build a suitable base of loose material with the kindling arranged in a vertical cone, rather like the frame of a native North American tee pee. Once built, ignite the substrate on the upwind side of the fireplace at several locations with long matches.
Successively larger pieces of timber can be added to the fire as the kindling catches on, again positioning the wood in a mostly vertical manner. This structure allows the timber to dry more effectively and creates the channels of hot air that twist through the fire by a process of convection, further promoting fire development.
Do not be tempted to use petrol as a combustion aid as it is very dangerous and not effective as it explosively burns and then extinguishes. A cooler flame burning for longer is far superior to a vapour-fueled explosion that has virtually no ability to dry the timber. Diesel fuel offers slightly better prospects, and a small amount added to the unlit fire, BEFORE striking the match, may help to get the fire established, but the best artificial assistance is by using tried and proven firelighter blocks.
Fanning the embers can reinvigorate sluggish burning fires. Removable esky lids to act as hand held fans are good for this, as are folded camp chairs to wave gusts of air into the coals. The occasional handful of dry gum leaves also helps to reboot the fire, as can the careful re-arranging of the burning timbers.
Firewood must only come from wind/storm-downed timber, and never by felling growing or dead standing trees. The cutting down of living or dead standing trees is irresponsible, poor camping behaviour and will lead to fines if you’re caught. If chainsaws are permitted where you intend to camp, they are an excellent way to cut dry firewood into suitable lengths. Bow saws are another option for energetic campers, while axes are often the tools of last resort. Placing the limb between the forked trunks of a large tree and snapping it can break smaller branches without the need for a saw or axe.
With the possible exception of gathering kindling (look out for snakes and spiders), all aspects of fire building and maintenance require an adult participant, but involving the older kids while you’re doing so can go a long way to teaching them campfire responsibility. Cutting and splitting firewood is a dangerous and physical chore and one that should never be given to children of any age.
Lighting a fire requires discretion and understanding while playing near and with a fire should be discouraged. Safety conscious campers will have a fire blanket and extinguisher on hand, while buckets of water should be nearby and will be required on departure. NEVER leave a burning campfire unattended – wind gusts can blow cinders onto flammable tents, chairs and the myriad of plastic items that we seem to dot bush camps these days. Gas bottles are a potential risk also, and these should be located well away and preferably upwind of any campfire.
Extinguishing a campfire requires the application of plenty of water to douse the flames and leave the coals cold before departing camp. It is a good idea to get into the habit of doing this before going to sleep the night before. When leaving the site, refill the pit with soil. It’s always great arriving at a campsite left clean by previous campers, and you should always return the compliment by leaving the site at least as clean, or cleaner than you found it.
The more time spent around campfires will lead to practical lessons learnt for future trips and more successful camping experiences down the track. You may quickly learn that campfire chefs need coals, not flames for cooking, cold region campers often carry a sheet of corrugated iron to reflect the fireside heat to the upwind side of the fire, while wet season campers usually take a supply of dry kindling whenever they head out. Regular campfire enthusiasts remember to put a stash of dry firewood under the vehicle before going to bed, knowing that overnight rain won’t leave them without dry firewood for a warming fire the next morning. Good campfire skills require experience and common sense. Practice the art with confidence, but keep safety as the number one priority.