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Camping during fire season? Here's some things you should know

The upcoming summer season means many will turn to campgrounds for a Canadian getaway, but wildfires could threaten some plans and put some traditions on hold.

Wildfires started earlier this year, causing thousands to evacuate communities in B.C., Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nova Scotia.

As of June 2 most of B.C. and Alberta and part of the Northwest Territories are under high to extreme fire risks, according to a map from Natural Resources Canada. Most of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and P.E.I are under similar warnings that stem from moderate to high risk of fires sparking.

As fire crews battle the flames, trying to save regions from degradation, they're pleading with the public to stay vigilant and not add to the problem.

With dry conditions leading to campfire bans across the country, some may wonder what they're still allowed to bring into a campground, and what are some alternatives to the traditional campfire.

"You can really never replace that (a campfire)," Kevin Callan, an experienced Canadian wilderness guide and author, told in an interview on Friday. "I love the idea of a campfire and it's in our element. Human beings have always been drawn to fire for whatever reason, because it gave us comfort and food."


Campers across Canada are used to enjoying the smoky air as they roast marshmallows and tell stories, but during a fire ban, Callan says, sticking to that tradition can come with a hefty fine.

These fines vary, with national and provincial parks sometimes issuing their own bans to comply with the conditions.

For Parks Canada, failure to comply can result in a fine of up to $25,000.

"Always remember that if there's a fire ban, you can't have a fire," Callan said. "You look at what people are dealing with right now, with fires, and people are still getting charged by going out and having a campfire."

Instead, Callan encourages campers to be creative and find different ways of mimicking the experience of sitting around a fire.

"I've got those fake LED candle lanterns and (I've) put it into the fire pit and pretended that was a fire and sang songs and ate raw marshmallows," Callan said.

Another option is stringing lights around wood, a blog by Ontario Parks reads, recommending adding coloured tissue paper to the pit to emulate flames.


Some experienced campers use fires to heat up meals or cook raw food, but not even small fires are allowed during a fire ban because open flames are dangerous in dry forest conditions.

Certain camp stoves are still permitted at sites, but campers should do their research before packing.

An empty campground and burned mountainside is shown in Waterton Lakes, Alta., Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

"Whether you are backcountry or frontcountry (car camping), it has to be a specific stove, it can't be a charcoal barbecue," Callan said. "That's an open flame. So it actually has to be a gas burner of some sort. And you have to be able to extinguish it with a valve. That's what defines a stove."

Parks Canada created a list on its website of what items are permitted during fire bans. In national parks gas or propane stoves, catalytic or infrared heaters and propane or gas lanterns are allowed.

Generally, candles can be burned in national parks during a fire ban, but these rules may vary by area.

In Ontario Provincial Parks, candles are one of the items prohibited during a ban.

Items not allowed in national parks during a ban include charcoal briquettes, turkey fryers, tiki torches and outdoor wood-burning stoves including cooking shelters.

Another item Callan says may also not be allowed are stick stoves, operated by a person feeding a fire with small pieces of wood.

"Everybody thinks, 'Well, you can bring that because it's a contained fire,'" Callan said. "It's not. It's on the list of 'you can't use that.'"


After years of camping and enjoying the outdoors, Callan says he's seen his fair share of fire mistakes. One of the more common ones is leaving a fire burning, assuming it will eventually extinguish itself.

"Just the latest trip I was on, this lovely couple — very nice — it was a heat wave, really hot, and they were paddling away from the site, and I go to their site and the fire was still going," Callan said. "They just left, and right above it was a sign saying: 'Please put your fire out.'"

Callan said this is a typical mistake.

One of the most important lessons Callan said he's learned is to never leave a fire unattended because if one spark is blown, it could start a much larger fire.

"I've heard stories of that happening and people getting stuck on islands with a forest fire because they started," he said.

Callan recommends a method that he says ensures a campfire won't spark up again.

"When you put the fire out, put water, stir it up, and then put water on again, stir it up and make sure there's no smoke coming off the embers," he said. "Stirring up that ash is really good because it puts it out down below as well."

When fires are set on any element besides hard rocks and sand, they can burn beneath the ground, which is why fire bans are still in place sometimes after it has rained.

"It takes a long time for the woods to get wet. People think just one thunderstorm will do it, and it won't," Callan said. "A fire will actually go down under the earth and burn the roots, and nobody will even know it's ignited. So those things are really nasty, and you need a really good downpour of rain for a long time to actually put those out."


About 40 per cent of wildfires are caused by human activity, the Government of B.C.'s website says, however, there are times when natural causes like lightning can ignite a wildfire.

Callan says if people are camping and they see smoke during a fire ban, or they see more smoke than would be caused by a campfire, they should leave as soon as they can.

"Always remember that even though it's in the distance, that forest fire can travel very quickly," he said. "And if you're in mountainous areas, the fire is going to travel up really quickly uphill, as opposed to downhill."

Callan says to try not to panic in the event of a forest fire, and remove any clothing that is made from synthetic materials (like nylon), because if it gets hot it can melt to skin. He said cotton and wool are safer options.

While many people will think to hold fabric up to their mouth and nose to block the smoke, Callan says they should never dampen it with water first, "because if you dampen it, that will create steam, and that will burn your lungs."

If a forest fire is headed your way, Callan says rescue crews will come to help if they know you're there.

"It does sound terrifying, but make sure you tell everybody where you are, (because) if there's a fire in the area, especially in a park, they're going to come looking for you." Top Stories


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