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How to Avoid Setting a Forest on Fire During Celebrations

Amy Sorter
Updated Mar 2, 2021
4 min read

Last week, a harmless gender reveal event went horribly wrong, sparking a wildfire in Southern California's El Dorado which is currently blazing across 18,092 acres and two counties, with 60% containment, according to the most recent information from CalFire. Evacuation orders and road closures are in place, as firefighters continue battling the wildfire, which has impacted forestland, homes and businesses. A lack of rain, high winds and triple-digit temperatures aren't helping the situation.

According to the National Park Service, humans cause nearly 85% of wildfires in the United States, and most can be attributed to carelessness. With this in mind, it's important to gain a better understanding of fire safety, especially before incorporating fire, fireworks, pyrotechnics or other flammables into your next outdoor celebration. 

How to Safely Celebrate Outdoors with Fire

Firework and celebration statistics from the National Fire Protection Association point out that fireworks started an estimated 19,500 fires in 2018, and 17,100 of those were "outside and other fires."

The National Park Service has also weighed in, pointing out most wildfires caused by humans are from either intentional acts of arson, debris burning, unattended campfires and equipment malfunctions. Such malfunctions can range from an exhaust pipe spark to pyrotechnic miscalculations.

"Fireworks or other pyrotechnics are a huge risk, especially during fire season," said Chase Lambert, a professional firefighter and paramedic located in Northern California. "It's not uncommon for fireworks to travel and move unexpected distances and start fires that can quickly get out of control."

These statistics don't necessarily mean all fire-related outdoor activities should be halted, but the use of fire should be approached with important safety measures in mind. For example, keeping campfires and bonfires contained in fire pits with spark-protecting covers, and watching those fires at all times, are both good ideas. When it comes to pyrotechnic safety, be sure your county, city or town doesn't prohibit them. And, don't light them during windy conditions. 

To ensure you don't find yourself the cause of the next 14,000-acre wildfire, these additional safety measures should be followed before you plan your next celebration outside using fire.

Be Aware of Municipal Burn Bans

Recently, the Bureau of Land Management prohibited all campfires and open flames in Southern California. Furthermore, in the San Bernardino National Forest, restrictions have been targeted on campfires, target shooting, smoking and other fire-related activities. Burn bans are typically issued during warm and dry weather conditions to prevent fires and reduce air pollution. If your local regulatory agency has issued any type of burn ban, put the fireworks, matches and cigarettes away.

Keep an Eye on Vegetation

Even if there isn't a burn ban in your area, you still need to keep an eye on the vegetation in your outdoor location. Don't start a fire — or set off a pyrotechnic device — in any field or forest where dry grass or wood is an issue. The pyrotechnic device that caused the El Dorado fire was launched in a field that contained dry grass.

"Your first step is to check your surroundings and look for things that can catch fire and become further fuel," said Kelan Kline, a former certified volunteer firefighter in upstate New York, who currently co-owns The Savvy Couple. "Things like dry, dead pine needles, dry grass fields and gasoline are all things you want to avoid if you are considering starting a fire," he said.

If you should find a location that seems clear of potential fire hazards, and are being very careful in containing your campfire, bonfire or fireworks, you still need to be hyperaware of what is going on. "Sparks can travel faster than you might think," said Lambert, who operates the informational website firefighterinsider.com.

Keep Plenty of Fire Retardants on Hand

Water bottles are great for quenching thirst, especially during dry times. But using water bottles to handle out-of-control fires? Not so much.

Before starting a fire or lighting fireworks, it's important to ensure you have access to water — and a lot of it. At the very least, the American Red Cross recommends having a bucket of water, garden hose or fire extinguisher on hand around any outdoor fire. If a fire does break out, "move flammable items away from the fire's reach, dump as much water on it as possible or use your fire extinguisher," Kline said.

Don't Wait to Call 911

One mistake often made when a spark becomes a fire in the great outdoors is that people wait, thinking they can put it out themselves. This is the absolute worst thing to do. "If a fire does start, don't wait to call 911 for help," Lambert said. "The longer you wait, the bigger the fire will get, and the more difficult it will be to stop it." Even if the fire seems small and something you think you can contain on your own, call anyway, as unseen hot spots or buried sparks could flare up into an unexpected blaze. "It's better to have the fire department on the way than wait and miss the opportunity to stop it in its tracks," Kline remarked.

The Bottom Line

Remember Smoky the Bear's slogan: "Only you can prevent forest fires." Wildfires are often caused by human error, as seen in the recent El Dorado fire in Southern California, which was caused by a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal celebration. Following government-mandated burn bans, understanding your environment and vegetation, keeping plenty of fire prevention tools on hand and being ready to call 911, if necessary, can help ensure that you enjoy fires safely and responsibly at your next outdoor celebration.

(Photo by Josh Edelson / GettyImages)

Amy Sorter

Amy Sorter is a journalist whose articles have been published in The Simple Dollar, The Business Journals, Dallas Innovates, among others.

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