Your Campfire Is Still Stupid

This was originally a post I made in June 2011. At the time Arizona’s Wallow Fire was the largest wild fire in our history. It had consumed well over half-a-million acres and was less than forty percent contained. I was flying from Dallas to Tucson over smoke that extended from the New Mexico border practically all the way to town and realized that gigantic fires like it have become common. And, man-caused fires of all types have become more frequent. This year we move from one of the driest winters in memory toward what is gearing up to be a hot, dry summer. So here’s a thought worth repeating:

So I’m just going to say this flat out, kids: Your campfire is stupid.

The very first thing I encountered on my very first camping trip to Arizona’s high country was a moron. I knew he was a moron because he had a mattock and was feverishly hacking a trench around his tent. Oddly, I knew exactly why he was doing this. I loved poking around in the attic as a kid. One afternoon, I discovered that my father had a Boy Scout handbook from the 1930’s. It was chock full of how-to information: how to build bridges from logs and string; how to make a lookout tower, how to make a ‘star’ fire; and, of course, the all important, how to trench around your tent.

Now, in the1930’s a lot of this stuff was cool. And a lot of it was necessary. But that is one of the hallmarks of a moron. Morons are incapable of synthesizing new information. Left to their own devices, they can’t decide if something is still necessary. Or cool. Believe me, trenching a modern waterproof tent, in one of the driest corners of the country, in a place that is the future home of many, many more campers is both unnecessary and definitely uncool.

Which brings me to your stupid campfire.

Building campfires just seem to be something that people feel like they have to do when they camp. At one time they were necessary. The campfire was the only source of light and warmth. It was the only way to cook food. But today people come camping with gas lanterns. They have gas stoves for cooking. They have tents and clothes available to them that can make camping on Everest survivable.  More and more frequently they come in campers that have electric lights, a completely weatherproof shell, and a full kitchenette. Yet they still build a fire. A fire that is unnecessary.

That’s not to say it isn’t undesirable. Campfires are romantic. There is just something about the jewel-like purity of those flames that grabs our amygdala in a very primordial, primitive way. And the smell! Ah, the smell of burning mesquite or juniper is a perfume like no other. So I get the attraction. But it’s still unnecessary.

In the interest of full disclosure, before I go any further, I’ll tell you that I sometimes still have a campfire.

But usually I don’t. And here’s why: In most places I camp, it’s difficult to justify the benefit of the fire with its cost.

One cost is that a fire requires downed, dry wood for fuel. Ignoring the fact that it takes time away from other fun to gather this stuff, getting wood becomes tougher all the time. As more and more people fan out to enjoy Arizona’s great outdoors, the clear radius around most camping areas grows larger and larger. So the wood is tougher to get. But the larger issue is that that decomposing wood is far more valuable to a healthy environment here in this dry, dry place than it is as fuel.

Another cost is that a fire detracts from the nighttime world around you. We make the automatic assumption that light helps us see at night. And to get work done, that’s true. Headlamps and flashlights come in really handy when you have to pitch a tent and cook in pitch darkness. But when the work is done and you’re ready to engage with the natural world around you (and isn’t that why you came?) light diminishes that world. Go without artificial lights, and a campfire sometime. Once your pupils dilate, you will be amazed at how much you can see.

Another cost is that campfires mar the landscape. While fire is beautiful, the aftermath of fire is undeniably ugly. And, again, here in this dry land, that pile of ash, and that ring of blackened rocks are going to last long enough for your children’s children’s children to make archeological digs in it.

And every once in awhile, that ugliness spreads to consume thousands and thousands of acres. Which brings me to my last point: fires are dangerous.

Fires are dangerous. And yet any moron can build one. And many of them apparently do.

I can’t say stop. After all, in the right place, at the right time, I know that I will build a fire. But I will add my voice to those who ask you to consider that your campfire is stupid. You don’t really need it. And here in Arizona in those dry months that stretch from February to June maybe we could just do without one at all. And maybe we have to start assuming that anyone who starts a fire then is just a moron. Spread the word. Who knows? If you do maybe you’ll help make sure we don’t spread another wildfire.

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