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Yesterday I was staying near Lake Wenatchee in Washington in an official campsite. There was a fire pit on site consisting of circular piece of metal and some rocks. The closest trees/objects were around 10 feet away, otherwise it was surrounded by nothing but dirt. There was also a grate available for cooking. So pretty safe as far as I can tell.

At the end of the day we had an argument - I wanted to keep the fire burning so that we could enjoy the light as we go to sleep. Others were saying that its not allowed so in the end we put it out. Now that I'm back, I'm trying to understand why its not allowed? From a quick Google the arguments are:

  1. "Its illegal". Well, so is marijuana on a Federal level but a lot of people still smoke it while camping.
  2. Fire might ignite nearby objects. Didn't apply as closest objects were 10 feet away.
  3. Wind might spread fuel around. I can see this happening, but there was a cooking grate available so we could've covered the fire to prevent wind from carrying it far.
  4. Kids might go play with it when you're not around. Good argument but no kids were present on the trip, nor was there a single kid in nearby campsites as far as I could tell.

So... are there conditions under which you can leave the fire burning overnight while sleeping next to it in a tent? What are the risks involved and can they be mitigated?

NB: since it was pointed out in comments, fires are currently allowed at campfires in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. We were at Nason Creek Campsite which is close to the lake but not part of the park where fires are banned.

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    Washington State? During a heat wave? There is (June 2021) a fire ban in place at the Lake Wenatchee State Park. That includes no wood fires allowed even in an official looking fire pit. Jun 29 at 1:48
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    And yes, I am feeling unapologetically indignant about campfires right now. I grew up in that part of the world, and I feel at least a little bit protective about the forests there. To have a forest fire started by careless maintenance of a campfire would be highly unfortunate. I don't know why there is a fire ban in some areas and not others. Personally, I feel that even though campfires may be technically permitted, it is still irresponsible to start one during a drought/heat wave. Jun 29 at 2:36
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    Hello, Jonathan: You underestimate Murphy and overestimate high IQ. My husband and I backpacked for 40 years, mostly off-trail, with our only mishap one broken wrist (mine). But several years ago we were under a lot of stress and exhausted, our combined IQ dropped temporarily by about 100 points, and we did several stupid things which together caused a near disaster for us (although for nobody else.) Please don't think you will always do everything right.
    – ab2
    Jun 29 at 4:50
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    "But as long as you understand how fire works and keep it small, there's pretty much zero risk involved." One might suggest that a person who has to ask the internet if they should leave a fire burning unattended during an unprecedented heat wave and drought conditions does not understand how fire works. 🤔
    – miken32
    Jun 30 at 18:40
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    It's forbidden, but you don't know why, so you don't want to respect the interdiction. That's typical Dunning-Kruger. You should at least consider that the people who set up the rules have a reason for it, and at least try to understand it before arguing that you don't have to follow that rule.
    – njzk2
    Jul 2 at 20:40
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The short answer is No, never leave a fire unattended.

The reasons are some of the ones you listed above, but you understated the major risk:

Unattended fires can easily spread - a log rolls out or cinders/sparks escape and set the forest on fire. Fires can be seemingly out, but retain enough heat to re-start themselves easily. 10 feet (~3 m) is not a large clear zone, and a grate will not prevent embers from being transported on the wind. Tents are generally made from plastics these days, and are very flammable. If there are overhanging trees, these can be heated by the rising hot air and sparks, igniting them. This can happen up to several metres (3.3 feet/metre) above the fire in the right conditions.

Additionally a major risk is that someone will step into the fire in the night and get severely burned. Fires that are cooling are covered in ash and not necessarily glowing, but still very hot. This is one of the major risks of lighting fires on a beach - people assume that covering it with sand is enough to extinguish the fire, but someone walks on top of it and gets badly burned.

Always extinguish your fire - pour water on, stir the ashes to ensure it is cool to the touch, add more water if necessary. You really really do not want to be responsible for the cost of putting out a forest fire or for paying for someones injury lawsuit.

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  • Thanks. To clarify, what's the minimum clear radius after which its safe to leave the fire unattended? 5m? 10m? Is there a special grate we can get to prevent glowing ash from flying out? Just trying to understand how people use fires for warmth at night if leaving on burning is supposed to be unsafe. Jun 28 at 23:41
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    IMO, there is no safe minimum clear radius for recreational camping. The reason I say this is (1) Murphy's Law always wins eventually and (2) reacreational camping is a privilege that benefits the people camping, but not others. Don't endanger others or the wilderness at all. As for how to keep warm, carry warm clothes. (Sorry to be snarky). If you are on an expedition or you are flipped back several hundred years, that is different. In a life-threatening situation, where freezing is a real possibility, someone should stay awake to tend the fire.
    – ab2
    Jun 29 at 0:02
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    Also, @JonathanReez, keep in mind that we are currently in a major drought in many parts, and where you were is currently at a “high” fire risk. Please fully put out fires at night, and even during the day if you’re going to leave them unattended. Unattended fires are just danger waiting to happen. And as ab2 said, people don’t really use campfires to stay warm at night outside of niche circumstances (like inside certain types of shelter) or in a survival circumstance. Jun 29 at 1:28
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    @JonathanReez There is no minimum clear radius, such things are highly dependent on the fire situation (contained, rock walls, log walls, pit...), what you are burning (different wood burn different temps, sparkyness, rates of burn, how well they maintain flame or ember), moisture content of surroundings (land/soil and plants - roots burn too!), type of fire (big, little, what you are burning). No grate will keep things in 100%.
    – bob1
    Jun 29 at 9:32
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    I'd add a modifyer that is maybe unnecessary; there are conditions and areas where leaving your fire is OK. During winter especially. It can be surprisingly hard to relight a fire with shaking hands when the fuel is wet and covered in snow. Jun 29 at 11:57
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It's the sparks/small expelled burning bits I'd worry about, they can go a long way in the wind (far more than your 10ft, and a grate doesn't keep them in), although there's not a huge amount you can do if they start a fire up in a tree.

In drought conditions, even if fires are permitted by law and conditions, I'd keep them to a minimum in size and time - a small cooking fire would be out by morning anyway so you may as well put it out. With a clear fire pit and only your group around, burning out and smothering could (make a judgement call at the time) be adequate IMO, because no one will step in that by accident - but you have to allow time, or douse it. The advantage of burning it out is that the you'll be left with a good place to start a morning cooking fire.

The wind direction and speed often change overnight too, so those same sparks could end up blowing onto your tent and melting holes. I've seen this happen with a double ring of tents round a fire; the closer ones were fine but a couple further away were badly damaged. That was probably more like 30ft from the fire, during the late evening

In the conditions you currently have, you should probably prepare for a total ban on fires being imposed at the last minute, and be able to cook without one anyway.

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    Much of this agrees with bob1's answer, but there was enough difference, and enough text, to not just be comment(s)
    – Chris H
    Jun 29 at 9:12
  • What would it take to make the fire safe to keep overnight? I want to enjoy the sight of burning wood as I’m falling asleep. Jun 29 at 9:45
  • @JonathanReez a cover made from the glass used in domestic wood-burning stoves, or wet conditions (or I suppose a treeless plain of sand/rock, but then where would you get your wood). Even of the flames have died down, most woods can pop unpredictably and throw burning embers up into the air, where they can be caught by the wind
    – Chris H
    Jun 29 at 10:06
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    @JonathanReez I would argue that if you want to watch a fire while you go to sleep, do that indoors in a fireplace at home. Play it safe with fires outdoors. We really don’t need more forest fires. And the risk is not worth the reward. That, or go to sleep early and designate someone to put out the fire after you go to sleep. Then you personally get a fire as you fall asleep but also satisfy the “no unattended fires” rule/guideline. How much do you really see of the fire when you’re in your tent, anyways? Jun 29 at 10:11
  • @fyrepenguin even under a tarp, I reckon most people shut their eyes. I guess the sound might be soothing
    – Chris H
    Jun 29 at 10:18
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(Sharing this because I felt pretty stupid at the time and hope people learn from my stupidity.)

I almost started a fire by mistake in BC 3 yrs ago, in a very remote area. I thought moss did not burn well - it does. Luckily I saw it within 30 seconds and I was 20m away from the shoreline - dumped my drinking water to start with, doused with repeat hauls of seawater.

5 minutes of panic and hyperventilation until it was all safe.

Though I don't think there was yet a fire prohibition when I set out, there was one when I returned (2 nights out). That summer later turned into one of our repeat smoke-seen-from-space messes. And even then my main motivation for that fire was seeing bear poo right by my landing spot.

Don't overanalyze and over-argue: we are at near drought condition here, so you are too and our massive forests burn wonderfully well.

Don't do anything remotely "daring" with fires in the Pacific NorthWest IN SUMMER. Avoid them entirely if possible.

p.s. I suspect many parts of the world have the same seasonal risks: the Med seems to burn every summer, for example.

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  • In my case there was nothing but dirt around the campfire pit, 10 feet around it was trampled to dust by generations of campers. But its a valid point in general. Jul 1 at 2:29
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    @JonathanReez there's dirt and dirt. Soil consisting of decompose vegetation will burn, though not usually fast. Sand/gravel of course won't. Realistically there's a mixture, but soil that could b used to smother a fire can still burn if there's enough airflow
    – Chris H
    Jul 1 at 7:36
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Another reason for not leaving a fire unattended or burning for longer than needed are the smaller roots of trees that are closer to the ground surface and can reach quite far (even 10 feet). If you build a fire that is dug into the ground then you might cut through some of these roots. Lighting a fire can set these small roots on fire, and in case of dry weather the kindling roots get oxygen from the cracked soil. In the end the whole tree can light up, seemingly unrelated to the original fireplace.

Depends on terrain, vegetation, weather, but it's still a good reason not to leave a fire unattended or burning for more than necessary.

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