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When my editor asked me to write this piece, I said, “Sure, there’s only one problem: I don’t really believe in the premise. I really like campfires.” As editors are wont to do, she told me to think about it. That was Wednesday, May 25, and I thought about it a lot over the long Memorial Day weekend that followed.
I thought about it when my partner and I forgot to check the fire danger levels and restrictions before heading out of cell service range on the way to our campsite in Park County and decided to build a fire anyway. I thought about it again the next night when, after acknowledging it was too windy for another one, I watched as our backcountry neighbors erected a bonfire whose six-foot-tall flames were bent over like old men by each gust. I thought about it that Sunday on our way into the town of Lake George as we drove past a huge roadside sign declaring in bright, traffic-emergency-orange LEDs that Stage 2 fire restrictions were in place, meaning no open flames of any kind were allowed.
What I decided after all that thinking is that, clearly, humans can’t be trusted. Even me.
I am fully prepared to have my Twitter feed blow up—and not in a good way—in response to my revelation. Trust me, I get it. I don’t think even I will be able to give up campfires completely. There’s a reason that humans since time immemorial have waxed poetic about dancing flames: They’re an essential part of the human experience. It’s not just the warmth they provide or the food they cook. It’s the darkness they hold at bay. It’s the safety they provide and the gathering places they create. But with the current state of the world, we should all ask, is all that worth it?
Allow me to throw some numbers your way. According to the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan organization that provides data and analysis to Congress, 89 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Although it’s hard to know what percentage of those wildfires started with campfires in the Centennial State (Colorado Public Radio reported in 2018 that local authorities only know the exact source of 43 percent of large, human-caused wildfires in the state, the lowest rate in the West), we can look to our southern neighbor to get an idea.
In 2012, the Santa Fe National Forest, located just outside its namesake city in northern New Mexico, found that campfires were responsible for 61 percent of the human-caused wildfires on the land it manages. It’s no wonder then that in mid-May, the forest announced it would go a step beyond fire bans and close to the public completely due to the “extreme and early fire season,” according to the Albuquerque Journal. (It didn’t help that wildland firefighters were already battling the largest wildfire in state history on the national forest’s eastern flank.) That would have meant no hiking, no mountain biking, no camping, no fishing, no nothing for seven—seven!—months had the forest not later changed the reopening date to June 24 thanks to the early return of the annual monsoon (which can cause its own problems).
Closures like that are probably going to be the new normal. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that as the climate crisis makes certain regions hotter and drier, including ours, that we’ll see more frequent and bigger fires, but legions of very smart scientists have found just that. In Colorado, the state’s 20 largest fires have all occurred since 2001 and, even more frighteningly, four of the top five have happened since 2018. The climate-change-driven drought even primed the environment for December’s Marshall fire, and a campfire is the suspected cause of Boulder’s NCAR fire, which burned 190 acres and forced the evacuation of 8,000 homes in March. When I saw news of the latter, I couldn’t help but think, Oh, no, here we go again—and you likely did, too.
Investigators found the remains of the campfire just a few feet off Bear Canyon Trail in Boulder Open Space Mountain Parks where all open sources of ignition are banned (including campfires), but the culprit has not yet been caught. I can’t help but think that maybe if campfires were banned completely statewide, a passing hiker would have called it in sooner because there would have been no ambiguity about whether fires were allowed. If fires were banned outright, I certainly wouldn’t have forgotten to check the fire warnings over Memorial Day weekend because there would have been nothing to check, and I would have felt empowered to walk over to my neighbors the next night for a friendly chat on backcountry etiquette, that is assuming they’d started a campfire at all.
Currently, fire bans are most often a patchwork of county and federal restrictions, which only adds to the confusion, but there is precedent for a statewide ban. In 2020, Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order implementing a temporary fire ban across the Centennial State, citing the authority given to him by the Colorado Constitution and the Colorado Disaster Emergency Act. At the time, all but three Colorado counties already had some form of fire ban in place, and Polis’ actions were to create “clarity of message,” according to the Denver Post.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s not like we’d really be missing all that much if we banned flames entirely. We already spend the majority of hiking and camping season under one level of fire ban or another. (We’ve certainly all made s’mores over a cookstove in recent years, and, you know what? They taste just fine.) As I write this in mid-June, 36 of the state’s 64 counties have some form of fire restrictions in place, and it seems like every year, the fire bans happen sooner and last longer. Last year, the Colorado Trail Foundation warned through-hikers planning to tackle the 485-mile trail from Durango to Denver to expect the entire route to be under a fire ban for the entire trekking season. If those folks can manage four to six weeks of fire-less nights, I think we can probably manage a long weekend. All this means that banning campfires permanently in Colorado wouldn’t be taking something away. It would be a recognition that, due to the growing frequency and length of our fire bans, we already lost them long ago.
So, throw on a thicker puffy if you’re chilly and enjoy the stars as your backcountry light show. Because let’s face it: What’s lost by not having a campfire doesn’t compare to the 366 homes burned and two lives lost during 2020’s East Troublesome fire. Or the 25 homes and 100,000 acres destroyed by 2018’s Spring Creek blaze. Or the 169 homes lost to 2010’s Fourmile fire. Or whatever might be destroyed—homes, lives—by the next glowing ember that escapes the campfire ring to find a warmer, drier world just waiting for a spark.