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In What do you do if the fire does get "out of control"?, someone asked a legitimate question, and @berry120 wrote detailed response, and ended with a "tl;dr" saying, " 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."

I would think a comparison with defensive driving would suggest the right mindset for preventing out-of-control fires. Defensive driving does not assume that every other driver will follow the laws; it is meant to give you best chances when someone is driving like an idiot and deals you a card off the side of the deck. And my impression is that defensive driving is now expected.

In terms of defensive driving, I expect an attorney could say a lot about, for instance, "A missed turn is much less painful to recover from than an accident."

But I wanted to ask: What are the basic approaches, actions, and measures taken to see that what starts in the fire pit, stays in the fire pit?

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First, lets dispel a common myth: Rock fire rings do absolutely nothing to contain, corral, or control a fire.

That being said, a fire needs 3 things: air, fuel, and heat. An overabundance of one will create an uncontrollable fire. Thus, keep the following in mind:

  • Consult the local fire conditions. Public lands agencies will rate the fire conditions. Heed their warnings.
  • Don't build a fire in high winds. Sparks can be thrown hundreds of meters into dry tinder and start a fire
  • Be aware of fuel nearby - anything organic that touches or is near your fire can combust. Tall grasses, shrubs, even roots that cross from your fire to a fuel source can create issues. Look for overhanging branches above your fire.
  • Keep your fire small. There is no need for 10foot flames. Smaller fires have less likelihood of throwing sparks or torching nearby vegetation
  • Burn nothing larger than the diameter of your wrist -- this allows for both a clean burn (no hot logs that you will be tempted to leave behind), and helps keep a fire low
  • Break or cut wood so that it fits within your fire -- sticking a 20ft log in one end and burning it down is a bad idea
  • Consider using a fire blanket under your fire to reduce the chance of igniting below ground roots (which also reduces fire scars)
  • Consider alternatives: a small candle, a lamp. I've backpacked professionally for 15 years and haven't had a fire in the back-country in the last 14.

Addendum: Being "defensive" also means being prepared if all goes south in a hurry. Have water, or a bucket of sand/non-organic soil nearby to help stop spot fires if it escapes your ring. A proper tool (shovel) should be on hand if car camping.

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  • +1 for a good answer. One thing to add is look up before you build the fire. – cpilko Mar 20 '13 at 13:02
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    +1 Good answer. I'd also add, keep a container of water right by the fire. If the water is handy, you can put out the fire when it's small. If you have to go get water, that gives the fire time to spread. – Don Branson Mar 20 '13 at 16:31
  • good points - added both. – Lost Mar 21 '13 at 19:34
  • +1 I almost started a fire in a spot that was clear except for green moss nearby. I didnt know, but moss burns quite well, if slowly. I was right next to it, looked away for 30 seconds and I now had a 40x40 cm fire rather than a 20x20 fire. (16"/8"). Luckily I was kayaking, ran to shore with a heavy waterproof kayak bag, filled it and doused fire. Reason I wanted a fire was some big bear skat right next to my landing spot. Turned out it was the start of a very bad fire season here, restrictions were in place by time I got back. Best to avoid fires and always watch them @ start. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Sep 21 at 16:15
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  • Keep means of putting the fire out if it starts spreading - water, a blanket, sturdy boots, whatever.
  • If the fires is to be left unattended (e.g. everyone is sleeping around it) remove any fuel in a large radius from it. What follows is extremely controversial(!!) but I'll share it nevertheless. One way of doing that is to let the fire spread! This requires correct assessment of the conditions. Low dry grass with some twigs - sure. High dry grass or pine trees/bushes - no, you won't be able to stop the spread, don't even think about a fire pit!
  • When departing from the campsite, make sure any partially burnt fuel is at most slightly warm. Even soaked in water logs can dry up and ignite in warm weather. If some embers need to remain behind, bury them under lots of soil.

Overall, before even thinking about starting a fire, assess

  • fuel availability (around and above)
  • wind
  • emergency measures available (it's quite safe to burn thick logs next to a river).

Position fuel deposits and camping equipment at twice the distance any sparks could get blown, don't get drunk and attend the fire constantly. Respect it as much as a potential murder weapon.

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    When you mention fuel availability do not forget burnable 'ground', some areas have peat which has been known to burn 'underground' and spread over a very wide area. – Willeke Sep 9 at 12:56
  • @Willeke to be honest, my answer is far from suitable for the question("very safe"). Inspecting the fireplalce 3 times: when smothering, when when done and when departing, is absolutely essential! – Vorac Oct 13 at 9:14
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Most basic rules (but not all) for starting an outdoor fire. 1: clear all flammable debris such as dry grass, bark, conifer needles, wood, twigs from your fire area 2: keep flammable liquids you may use as accelerant away from the fire. 3: Keep lose clothing, blankets, paper, fabrics,etc away from he flame. 4: line stones, rocks or pebbles in a fire break perimeter around the fire 5: Keep a bucket of water and shovel nearby for immediate extinguishing in case of necessity or emergency. 6: Inundate the fire the water after extinguishing. Make sure the temperature of the ground is near ambient if it's still warm its potential for reigniting continues.

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