Campfire & Bonfire Saftey, Ceremonial Fire, and Fire Spinning Safety
This information was gathered for wilderness community gatherings in Santa Barbara, California,
but applies with modification to camping, cermonies, sweat lodges, etc. just about anywhere
A ceremonial fire, sage smudges, candles, fire spinning, smoking...all these things are great. However, in our region at least, any of these could spark a calamitous wildfire. It is vital to accurately discern the actual fire danger and respond appropriately. This is trickier than it seems at first blush...
On November 12th, 2009, we celebrated the full moon in the Santa Barbara mountains. By consensus, we did not have a ceremonial fire that night. Another group of full moon revelers several canyons over did make a fire, which they said they put out. The late afternoon of the next day, high winds apparently revived the embers, blew a spark into dry brush. The ensuing wildfire resulted in the evacuation of 15,000 people, sent two people into intensive care for months, burned 2000 acres and 210 houses worth $300 million. It took over 2000 firefighters and almost $4,000,000 to put it out. This was a medium-sized fire for our area.
If you start a wildfire through negligence, you are financially responsible for the suppression costs, and criminally responsible for any deaths.
Behind the free, anarchic, celebratory atmosphere of our circles is an (invisible to most) substructure of education of co-celebrants to reign in potentially dangerous behaviors, negotiations with neighbors and authorities, and a multitude of fire safety measures. The integrity of this substructure is key to establishing strong, quality, sustainable and ongoing celebrations.
Measures to address the political, legal, and practical sides of the fire issue all interconnect and support each other; we'll consider each in turn—
Practical Fire Safety Measures
- Accurately discern the actual fire danger and clearly set boundaries for the event—Do what makes sense in that particular context. Discretion is the better part of valor. Here's some examples:
When the fire danger is moderate, we meet in the mountains without a community fire (using enclosed candles or glowy ball things in the middle of the circle)
When the fire danger is high, we move the whole event from the mountains to the beach (where the fire danger is much less)
The community fire is relatively easy to control, but there are other ignition hazards, including these I've personally witnessed at various events over the decades:
- Oblivious smokers flicking ash into dry brush
- Drunk girls with a beer in one hand a cigarette in the other weaving down a steep slope through tinder dry brush looking for a place to pee
- Wind bringing a stubbed-out sage stick back to life, and then showering windblown embers over a wide area
- Renegade fire-spinners
- Side groups that have made, then abandoned live fires away from the main area
- An old punky oak trunk surrounded by dry grass in an obscure corner of a large property, with a live coal just glowing and growning there. Theory: someone snubbed a cigarette out on it.
How are you going to control drunks with cigarettes? You can't. If there is any chance of having alcohol or cigarettes at your gathering, you've got to be away from brush in red flag conditions.
When the fire danger is moderate or higher, fire spinners switch to battery powered glowing hoops and poi.
At the beach, fire spinners perform when the tide is low, on a vast playground of glistening sand or in knee deep water, where the danger is miniscule and the reflections make the visuals three times as epic (hats off to Kit Hoopster and Devin, whose knee-deep fire staff and dual mini-fire hoop performance with full moon and Jupiter making scintillating silver trails on the ocean was like...the most awesome thing I've ever seen).
- Check the conditions not just regionally but in your specific context—while it is foggy and drippy in town, it can be hot, dry and windy in our mountains. Here's some fire weather resources:
Weather at SB beach from NOAA weather graph version...super informative on all parameters; just enter your location.
Hourly fire danger level (CEFA; note how much it changes hour by hour), Fire danger level (GACC),....Fire Weather (NOAA), Detailed fuel moisture (WRCC; click on "daily summary" on left)...pretty sure this is dead fuel moisture, Los Padres National Forest Ranger District (805) 967-3481 (tough to get someone). Live fuel moisture, USFS-WFAS live fuel moisture (doesn't look like its updated in winter)
One favorite place to meet in the mountains has not burned for several decades. The resulting dead fuel load is such that even after several inches of rain, it can dry out enough to burn in a few weeks, even though you couldn't start a fire in most of the back country if you tried.
- Clear combustible material from the area—in a 25 to 50 foot radius, focusing on the downwind or other hazardous areas. Those same combustibles can be burned in the fire. Strip the immediate area of dead, dry wood, and it's a lot less likely to get a wildfire going. The longer you meet in an area, the more cleared it will be.
- Have some means of fire suppression handy—
- Fire hose
- Fire extinguisher
- Water buckets
We have a pressurized water fire extinguisher and shovels permanently stashed where we meet in the mountains. We bring blankets, and carry in four gallon jugs of extra water to put the fire out cold.
At the beach, we bring blankets and have four five gallon buckets and a shovel stashed. We fill these with ocean water and leave them between the fire and the ocean bluff. If a sudden gust of wind comes up, we could kick them over and have the fire out cold in seconds. If a spark or errant fire poi or something goes into the brush on the cliff, the water is already just a few feet away, in a container in which it can be carried, and then flung. A human chain could refill the buckets from the ocean at a pretty good rate of flow. (in a true emergency, drums could be used as water vessels for this purpose, too...starting with the fiberglass and synthetic head ones, of course.)
- Don't make it too big
- If the wind suddenly comes up, you can dramatically reduce any spraying of sparks by quickly making a tight circle of people around the fire on the upwind side, or even all around it. This is quite effective, and is a good thing to practice.
- Attend the fire continuously until putting it out cold. To put a fire out cold, let it burn down to small coals, breaking up bigger pieces if necessary. If you water supply is limited, pour it carefully, first "painting" it all from glowing to black, then quenching any sources of smoke, and the main sources of steam. Used with the utmost efficiency, which takes about ten minutes of alternate slow pouring and observation, minimum three gallons of water puts out of our medium-sized fires out cold, though I'd use ten gallons if available. It is important to flip over every piece of wood and put out the under side of it, and also any coals that it was sheltering.
- Burying the fire also is effective...be sure to cover it thoroughly, however, with several inches of sand or soil, bearing in mind that the wind might come up later (see the story in the beginning of this section). It is critical to have complete covarage. I've seen a fire at the beach burn for several hours sucking air through a hole smaller than my little finger.
- Beware of new fire pits in places with roots...roots can burn invisibly underground for long distances and periods of time before flame pops up where you don't want it. Make a thick pad of mineral soil over forest floor with roots or duff.
It is now (Fall 2009) illegal to light a fire in the Los Padres National Forest outside of designated areas, with a penalty of $5000 and up to six months in jail. Elsewhere in Santa Barbara county it is also illegal.
In populated areas, the ability to meet around a fire and drum loudly all night will depend not only on finding a place where few people are disturbed, but also on carefully cultivating a reputation for responsibility. If the gatherings are reckless and inconsiderate, you can count on having the book thrown at you, whereas if the gatherings are respectful and careful accommodation from others is much more likely. To win over the hearts of people and organizations that might otherwise set themselves against you, try going way overboard on the practical side of fire safety.
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