Take the 2-minute tour ×
The Great Outdoors Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people who love outdoor activities, excursions, and outdoorsmanship. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Let's say you are camping with a large group, and someone starts a camp fire. You're away for a bit and come back to find everyone panicking and the fire to be much larger than actually planned (ie, burning into surrounding grass or brush).

What steps can/should be taken to get the fire under control?

share|improve this question
    
Planning to avoid this is the best advice. –  QuentinUK Mar 8 '13 at 3:08
    
You can´t plan everything, so it´s a valid question. –  Paul Paulsen May 13 at 9:13

3 Answers 3

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I see three priorities:

  • Make sure no one gets hurt
  • Make sure possessions needed for survival (food, tents) are not destroyed
  • Make sure the fire doesn't spread further and become a forest fire

If the campsite you're using is an officially-sanctioned one, this last is probably the least likely to be a problem. You have a large group of people, so you can tackle all of these things at once as long as you take control and give people things to do. Don't say "somebody X!" Turn to someone and say "Steve, X! Susan, Y!" and so on. The things they need to do (pretty much all in parallel, but listed in priority order) are:

  • put shoes on
  • get large containers (buckets, washing up bowls) of water if the source is near enough - ten or twenty steps - to make running back and forth with water reasonable
  • take towels and blankets to the water to drench them for use as smotherers
  • get small children or injured people well out of the way of both the fire and the people who are dealing with it, including out of the path to the water, and for small children, leave someone in charge of them so they stay out of the way
  • move tents or packs that appear to be in the way or in danger
  • throw water on the edges of the fire, then run back to refill the container
  • use large wet towels, coats or non-polymer blankets, tarps etc to smother flames if possible, then pick up the slightly singed smotherer and do it again somewhere else. Resoak as needed
  • move benches and other fireplace furniture out of the way of the people who are running around with water and smothering-blankets

Watch while this is happening and evaluate. You may need to get some people to start taking children, packs, and tents down to the water and loading them into canoes, or out to a road or other less-likely to burn spot from where you can leave or be rescued. There may also be someone kicking up a fuss about something not critical for survival that is in danger - a stuffed animal, or a book - and you may be able to delegate someone to deal with that, or to tell the wailer "we have to concentrate on keeping it from spreading to the tents!" which should keep the noise level down if nothing else. If anyone is hurt, getting someone to start giving them first aid is also a good idea if you have spare people with no buckets or smothering-blankets to use and no other duties like moving stuff to be done first. You also have to decide if things have reached the "call 911" stage and if so, direct someone to do so. This may involve telling them where to find a phone.

Keep directing people, keep watching if it's getting bigger or smaller, keep aware of how many people are in danger and which possessions are in danger, and either you will get it back under control or you will evacuate to whatever extent you can.

True story: a family member was in a tent/cabin (permanent structure, canvas walls and roof) that caught fire in the night while winter camping. He carried his sleeping bag with him on the way out; he doesn't know why. Without that, as they stood in the pitch black cold (-10C) , hours from help with no food, water, or first aid, only the clothes they had been sleeping in, the two burned teens would, everyone agrees, have died. (The unburned kids were able to move around to keep warm, some got a little frostbite but that was all.) Do not underestimate the importance of keeping stuff safe in addition to people.

share|improve this answer

If you find yourself in this situation, then there's a few steps you can take - firstly try to extinguish the fire as quickly as possible by pouring as much water as you can on the flames, and stamping out any embers that build up as quickly as you (safely) can. Urinating on the fire would also not be out of the question here, especially if your water source is scarce.

If it looks like the fire is spreading quickly in one direction, and it doesn't look like you can stop it outright, then move on a bit in that direction and work to clear any flammable material out of the fire's path. When the fire then reaches that point, this may give you a better angle to tackle it again. If things reach this point however, you should delegate someone to phone the emergency services.

Work in two main teams if you can, one group moving (firstly) children / people to safety, then ideally your belongings to safety - and the second working to extinguish the fire via the methods above. The group moving things to safety can join the first group in extinguishing the fire when their task is complete.

It's also worth remembering the practical side of things in how you address people can make all the difference. Delegate swiftly, efficiently and firmly, give people instructions by name and don't, however tempting it is, start yelling out "WHO THE HECK LET THIS FIRE GO OUT OF CONTROL" (or words to that effect.) Sure thing, someone screwed up if things have got to this level, but you can deal with that later - you're putting lives at risk if you start dishing out blame at this point.

However, it's worth remembering that the above is a real, real last resort and is in no way a sure fire guide (no pun intended) to safely putting out a blaze. It usually goes without saying in all cases, but especially here - prevention is several orders of magnitude better than cure. Preparation is key:

  • Don't start a fire that you don't have an effective means of putting out. Make sure you have plenty of water on standby reserved for pouring on the fire if things go sour (you should have this anyway for pouring on the fire when you're done, to make sure it's extinguished.)

  • Even better than the above if possible, light a fire next to a water source. This has three main benefits - it provides readily available access to all the water you need for cooking, which you will likely be doing with a fire anyway, it provides the above for putting out the fire if things go sour, and if the fire does spread you don't need to worry in the direction of the river.

  • Don't ever start a fire someone that's surrounded by flammable material. If you really can't find a place that isn't, clear a generous area around it of debris so that embers don't set anything alight that you didn't intend. If it's windy, then clear an extra large space around the fire, especially in the direction of the prevailing wind.

  • Always watch the fire yourself, or if you have to leave, leave it in charge of a single person which you trust. Don't say to everyone "ah, just watch it while I'm gone" - chances are no-one will really, and everyone will just point to everyone else if something goes wrong. Delegate the responsibility to a single, competent individual who has sufficient training.

  • Keep your stuff, especially tents, a fair distance from the fire to start with. This may not seem ideal in, say windy weather from a comfort point of view, but is an important safety consideration.

tl;dr You should be aware of the steps for how to deal with an out of control fire, but if the proper precautions are taken, you should very rarely or never need to resort to them. Prevention is 100x better than cure in this case.

share|improve this answer
    
I'd underscore that the question as asked is legitimate, but it should be addressed as subordinate to "How can we prevent an uncontrolled fire?" as I imagine there are more gotchas and sage advice there, and there might be some things that seem harmless but risk getting out of control that are more important to know than knowing what to do after you already have a fire out of control... Defensive driving is more important than having a cell phone to call 9-1-1 after you have an accident. –  JonathanHayward Mar 19 '13 at 18:56
    
Also, by analogy with defensive driving, a missed turn is a whole lot less painful to recover from than an accident. (I'd imagine an attorney could comment on this at almost infinite length.) So part of "defensive burning" is erring on the side of missed turns. –  JonathanHayward Mar 19 '13 at 19:03
    
In my experience, stomping a fire has much much larger effect than pissing on it. –  Vorac Mar 25 '13 at 15:50

In addition to great strategy advice by Kate Gregory and berry120, there are some technical points.

Take a deep breath

If there is no immediate health/life risk, take a deep breath and think a little. 1-5 minutes of planning beforehead will help you do important things first, and avoid doing unnecessary or dangerous things.

At this time, you will decide, if you are calling 911 immediately, if you are fighting or retreating and how to fight most efficiently.

Estimate the danger

I'm not a fire expert, so the following classification is very rough.

  1. Small area of small fires (grass) - if you act fast, you can put it out faster than it's spreading
  2. Big area of small fires (grass) - you can't put out all the fire, but you can try to limit its spread. Follow Kate's advice on effective control. Make sure you do not get surrounded by fire while you are fighting.
  3. Any area of big flames (trees/bushes) - escape, save people, forget the forest. Developed crown fires travel rapidly, faster than you run, so be safe before it gets developed.

I think I'd call 911 in case of 2 or 3.

Know avialable resources

To extinguish the fire:

  • Fire extinguishers (what if there is one in a nearby cabin)
  • Water
  • Lack of air (preventing oxygen to reach fire by covering it or trampling it)
  • Earth/dirt (if you have a shovel, you can make a ditch and cover some flames with digged out earth simultaneously).
  • Fireman squads

To prevent fire spread:

  • Lack of flammable material.
    • Earth itself doesn't burn, but grass and wood do. Try to make a branch-free circle well around the fire (or block it's main spreading route). Dig or trample the grass so that it catches fire more reluctantly.
    • Rivers. Tree crowns should not overlap, or you can cut some trees to achieve this. And make sure to remove all the crossing dead wood.
    • (Already burnt areas. What is burnt to ashes doesn't catch fire again. Large-scale firefighting may include preventive controlled burning, but it's not your case.)

Mind the smoke and the wind

Grass burns don't provide much heating, but the smoke makes it very hard to breathe, so don't rush into thick smoke it with your bucket of water.

Always escape upwind if you have the choice. There is no smoke there and fire spreads much slower in this direction.

share|improve this answer
1  
It's worth mentioning, since you mentioned shovels, when digging a line for the fire, always push in or toss the dirt you dig up in to the fire. Yes this will give it some grass to burn and some dirt to smother, but it will reduce your risk of embers being outside and the fire jumping the line you made. –  MaskedPlant Feb 28 '13 at 14:27
    
@MaskedPlant, absolutely. Moreover, dirt will cover some flames and make them lower, which is a much stronger effect than adding slightly more fuel. –  Steed Feb 28 '13 at 18:42

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.