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Safe and Sound

Campfires are loads of fun, but take precautions to avoid burning more than your firewood.

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
William Clark, left, Kyle Thompson, center, and Alex Thompson arrange wood in a fire pit, starting with kindling and processing to larger pieces.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002

WEEDON ISLAND -- Making a campfire is as much an art as it is a science.

"You can build the biggest fire in the world," said Boy Scout leader Keith Thompson. "But it is not going to do you any good if you can't get it lighted."

Thompson, a ranger at this county park, has taught dozens of scouts the finer points of fire preparation over the years.

"Knowing how to build a fire can save your life," he said. "It is probably the most important wilderness skill you can have."

Winter is Florida's traditional camping season, and more and more people are taking to the woods than ever before. A fire not only provides light and warmth, but it also makes a campsite feel more like home.

But before you go lighting the woods on fire, remember that campfires are not allowed in every state and national parks and forests.

Florida has had drought conditions for a decade or more, so the risk posed by forest fires is great. Check with the proper authorities before you strike a match.

If fires are allowed, most organized campgrounds (i.e., state parks) will have a fire ring or grill area. If a fire ring has been left by other campers, use it.

If several fire rings are in the area, scatter the rocks and burned timbers (first make sure the timbers are dead) to discourage others from using them. One fire ring is enough.

If you are starting from scratch, pick an unoffensive spot. If you are near the ocean or a river, build your fire below the high-water mark.

If no fire ring is there, dig a small depression and clear away brush, twigs and other flammable objects. When you are finished with the campfire, cover the ashes with dirt.

In a heavily used area, you may have a hard time finding wood. That is why it is a good idea to bring your own. Where ample wood is available, take only dead, fallen material.

Most organized campgrounds have cut, dried wood for sale. Spend the money. It might help pay the salaries necessary to keep your favorite trail cleared.

Use hardwood if possible. It will burn longer and more evenly. For kindling, use wood shavings, twigs, Spanish moss or newspaper torn into strips.

"Kindling is probably the most important part of the fire," Thompson said. "You need to make sure that it is dry and that it will ignite."

Thompson favors small pieces of kindling taken from downed pine trees, especially those that have been hit by lightning.

"The lightning makes all the sap gather in the center of the tree," he said. "We call the wood "lighter knot,' and it will burn forever."

Start with small sticks. Stack the wood in the form of a tepee or pyramid, with the larger material on the outer edge. Place your kindling in the middle. Make sure plenty of air is circulating. A good fire needs space to breathe.

If you don't have a piece of lighter knot, bring along a candle to use as a fire starter. It beats going through box after box of matches, though it's always a good idea to have waterproof matches, too.

Add bigger material as the fire gains strength, but avoid the temptation to add too much too soon. You'll smother the flames.

In most cases, keep the fire small. All you need is a gentle glow to warm the spirit.

"You really have to evaluate your needs," Thompson said. "If you want a fire for light, build it in a tepee shape. If you want if for warmth, build it in a log cabin shape."

Before you turn in for the night, make sure your fire is out. If water is available, give the fire a good soaking. If you can't find water, use dirt. Never leave camp with a fire burning.

"You can never stress fire safety enough," Thompson said. "We don't allow campfires here at Weedon Island, unless it is for some special purpose, such as scout training. Before you start a fire, you need to know the rules."

Fieldbook, published by the Boy Scouts of America, offers an excellent chapter on campfires and cooking in the outdoors. The book, available from most scout shops, covers everything from beginning backpacking to wilderness search and rescue. It is a great addition to any outdoor enthusiast's library.

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