One of the most dramatic regional cases of an abandoned campfire going ballistic was the Roosevelt Fire south of Hoback Junction in 2018.
At least 55 homes were destroyed, 61,000 acres burned, the highway closed and 230 homes evacuated. A badly burned father and son jumped into a creek to escape the flames. 1,175 firefighters, 10 helicopters and 56 engines were engaged.
An exceptionally dry and warm spring in eastern Idaho and western Wyoming has fire officials already worried about this year. On top of the worries, patrolling rangers are finding too many abandoned campfires on public land.
“People just aren’t thinking of fire safety at this time of year,” said Bridger-Teton National Forest public affairs officer Mary Cernicek. “It’s like folks assume because it’s spring they don’t need to worry about putting out their campfires.”
Cernicek said as of June 2, there have been 21 abandoned campfires, most on the Bridger-Teton, compared to seven abandoned campfires by this time last year. In 2019, there were three.
Closer to home, an abandoned campfire west of Blackfoot next to the lava flows grew into a 338-acre wildfire over Memorial Day weekend.
Normally June is the time of year when Idaho wildland firefighters do their training and occasionally help Utah or New Mexico battle their blazes. But this year could see more local action because of the drought.
“Having a fire grow to over 300 acres the first of June is not normal for this area,” said Joel Gosswiller, Idaho Falls District Fire Management officer of the Tabor Fire near Blackfoot. “Current fire predictions, and what we are seeing on the ground, suggest this area might be busier than normal due to the anticipated hot and dry summer.”
Sarah Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, said the trouble with abandoned campfires was growing last year. One particular incident still irritates her.
“We were seeing quite a large increase in abandoned campfires last fall,” Wheeler said. “There was one weekend that we had six. It made me super furious because we had just done this (public service announcement) and had just lifted fire restrictions, and it was people that had walked away from their campfire. Several of those did result in an acre to a 2-acre fire.”
Wheeler said escaped abandoned campfires deep in the backcountry can be expensive to put out because they often involve scrambling a helitack crew costing several thousand dollars an hour. Regular ground crews cost between $400 and $700 an hour depending on the number of people and machines involved, she said.
Forest Service officials warn that people found responsible could be cited with violation notices and possibly fined. Persons responsible for starting a fire that escapes, resulting in a wildfire, may be on the hook for the cost of putting it out.
Wheeler said nearly 90% of the region’s wildfires last year were human-caused. Not all were from sloppy campfires. Some resulted from fireworks, firearms or motor vehicles.
Officials are hoping the solution is a matter of education — teaching public land users to take responsibility and care as they recreate.
“I worry, however, that some people just don’t care,” Wheeler said. “It does take time to put out a fire. People get up in the morning and want to leave and get home, and there’s still heat on it. And then we get those afternoon breezes, and it fans it, you get flames again.”
The Forest Service’s safe campfire sermon is simple: Bring a bucket and a shovel.
“We just want to remind visitors to build their campfires in a safe spot, not to leave them unattended, and to extinguish them completely before leaving the area,” Cernicek said. “Always keep a bucket of water and a shovel nearby. When putting a campfire out, drown it with water, stir with a shovel, and never leave a fire until it is cold to the touch.”
“You’ve got to make sure the coals are not hot before you leave. Before you go, if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave,” Wheeler said.