Unattended campfires can burn deep and cause wildfires

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

“An abandoned campfire does have the potential to become a wildfire,” says Leah Lovequist, Slave Lake Forest Area wildfire information officer. “Just last week (Sept. 17) in the Slave Lake Forest Area, firefighters responded to an abandoned campfire that had been burning for several days. The campfire spread to the size of a 10 foot x 12 foot room and was burning deep into the ground. Special thanks to the hunter who reported it.”

The fall has been hot and dry, she continues, so if not reported this small fire could have grown quickly.

“A campfire will not burn out on its own,” she adds. “Firefighters urge everyone to please do their part to prevent wildfires this fall. Never leave your campfire unattended and make sure it’s extinguished. Soak it with water, stir up the ashes and soak it again. Put your hands over the ashes to feel for heat. A campfire is out when there is no heat coming from the ashes.”

The new specified fine for abandoning a campfire is $600. The exact wording is ‘fail to light outdoor fire for cooking or warming as specified.’

The specifications are within the regulations of the Forest and Prairie Protection Act.

The regulation specifies that “a person who lights an outdoor fire for cooking or warming purposes shall (a) light the fire on a flat rock, gravel, sand, bare mineral soil, or other non-combustible surface that extends at least one metre around the fire; (b) ensure a responsible person is in attendance at the site of the fire to supervise the fire until it has been extinguished; and (c) have at the site a sufficient supply of water to extinguish the fire.” A version of (b) applies to someone who uses the fire.

Fire fines are issued under the Forest and Prairie Protection Act. The new fines range from $360 to $1,200. Some more serious offences require a court appearance. The old fines ranged from $172 to $575.

Fires burning deep
Lovequist says, “How long and deep a fire will burn into the ground depends on the moisture conditions in the ground. Fires have been known to burn underground all winter long under the snow. The black spruce and muskeg stand east of the Town of Slave Lake which burned in 2011, had deep ground fire. The fire was burning deep in the muskeg and required trenching and irrigation. It took a couple of weeks of firefighting to extinguish.

“This spring on the Chuckegg Creek Wildfire when the conditions were warm and windy, the ground fires became active. Extinguishing these ground fires also required heavy equipment as the fire burned down to 10 feet in the muskeg areas.”

Last year, Slave Lake had a busy fire season. First, it hosted evacuees from the Chuckegg Creek Wildfire in the High Level area. Then, the McMillan fire started.

The McMillan Fire is still on the books, says Lovequist. It is classified as under control. It hasn’t been active this year.

2020 fire season
The Sept. 25 Slave Lake Forest Area Wildfire update says, “Since March 1 in the Slave Lake Forest Area, there have been 62 wildfires which have burned a total of 269.5 hectares.”

This is much lower than last year and the previous four-year average.

Last year, as of Sept. 17, 2019 Slave Lake Forest Area had 165 fires which burnt 274,150 hectares, says a Leader article from last year: ‘2019 fire season not over yet.’ “From 2014-2018, the average number of fires was 196, with 11,000 hectares burnt.”

The McMillan Complex was the largest fire in recorded history within the Slave Lake Forest Area. It made up 273,045 hectares of last year’s total.

A fire caused by an abandoned campfire in the Slave Lake Forest Area. It was discovered and extinguished on September 17. Photo courtesy of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

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