Leading Idaho Fire Causes

Embers drifting from a campfire in a canyon ignite a wildfire that incinerates thousands of acres.

A man driving on a national forest road stops on tinder-dry grass. The hot engine acts like a match, kindling a wildfire that burns thousands of acres.

Authorities suspect that a blaze that destroyed homes last week was started by sparks from a power tool being used to clear brush.

A growing number of wildfires in Idaho are joined by a common, incriminating back-story:  People caused them.

Whether a wildfire is a result of equipment use, debris burning, abandoned campfires, smoking or playing with fire – human carelessness is NOT acceptable.

Raising the awareness of the wildfire problem is the first step in the education of wildfire prevention.

Keep Idaho Green works statewide to raise awareness of the most frequent human-caused wildfires such as those resulting from debris burning, equipment use, recreation, children playing with fire, and smoking.

Campfires

Camping and campfires go hand in hand. It is difficult to imagine going camping without building a fire to toast marshmallows and sit around telling ghost stories. Without proper safety etiquette, your campfire could turn your camping trip into a disaster.

Choosing a Safe Location for Your Campfire

Most campgrounds already have preexisting fire rings to use. Unless the fire ring is in a dangerous spot, you should build your fire there. The campground owners have likely already deemed this as a safe location to build a fire. The fire ring will help contain sparks and prevent your fire from spreading.

If your campsite does not have a fire ring, you will need to create one. First find a spot that meets these criteria:

  • Downwind at least 15 feet away from your tent and firewood
  • Away from trees, bushes, logs, stumps and overhanging branches
  • Away from dry grass and forest debris
  • Away from any other flammable items

If your campsite does have a fire ring already, check if it meets the above criteria too. The landscape around your campsite could have changed since the fire ring was initially built. There might now be a branch that overhangs the current fire ring. For example, now there might be branches overhanging the old fire ring.

Preparing Your Campfire Area

Once you have chosen where to build your campfire, you need to ensure the area is completely clear of any combustible material that could possibly ignite. It is best to clear the ground right down to the soil, and out five (5) feet from the fire pit. Fires can spread underground through root systems or decaying material. Surrounding twigs and dry leaves can easily catch fire from a wayward spark.

After the ground has been cleared, dig a shallow pit about two (2) feet across and encircle this pit with a ring of medium-sized rocks. These rocks should be tightly placed together, without any gaps where sparks could fly through. Remove any small, loose stones from the pit that could potentially explode from the fire’s heat.

Before you begin building the campfire, make sure you have equipment on hand to extinguish a fire. A responsible camper will not light the first match until he or she is sure there is a bucket of water or sand nearby to douse unruly flames in the event of an emergency. You will need a large bucket of water and a shovel. Keep these things close enough to the fire pit that they are quickly accessible in an emergency.

If the ground around your campsite is too hard to shovel, also keep a bucket of sand or dirt nearby.

Safely Light Your Campfire

Avoid using lighter fluid, or any other chemicals, to start your fire. These fuels are dangerous to use in the wilderness. They can unexpectedly flare-up and catch your clothing on fire. Always use a lighter or match to ignite the kindling. Do not discard any used matches until they are cool to the touch.

It can be tempting to build a large bonfire instead of a reasonably-sized campfire. Resist the temptation, and put safety first. A large fire will emit more potentially hazardous sparks. Sparks from a large fire are capable of drifting further away than sparks from a small fire. It is also much more difficult to extinguish a large fire.

Maintaining a Safe Campfire

While your campfire is burning, never leave it unattended. Despite safety precautions, the campfire could spread from your fire pit. You need to remain in the area to ensure your campfire doesn’t spread.

Be careful what you burn in a campfire. Try to stick to manageable pieces of firewood that easily fit within your fire pit. It is not a good idea to burn large logs that stick out past the fire pit. Also, avoid burning fresh branches that give off excess sparks.

Properly Extinguishing Your Campfire

Before you go to sleep, or when you leave the campsite, you must fully extinguish your campfire. First, douse the flames by pouring water on the fire. However, you are not done yet. Just because you can’t see flames, does not mean the fire cannot re-ignite. Hot embers will continue smoldering for hours. To deal with the embers, stir the coals and add more water. Then cover the coals with dirt or sand. Feel the ashes with your hand to make sure there are no hot coals left.

It is far too easy for a campfire to spread and become a forest fire. When you are camping, it is your responsibility to protect the forest from your campfire. Follow these simple campfire safety rules and use common sense. Sometimes, it simply is not safe to have a campfire at all. If the forest is too dry, and forest fire danger is high, there is often a ban on campfires. Respect these bans, as they are for your own safety. Strong winds make for dangerous campfire conditions too. Use your own judgment if necessary. Do what you can to protect our forests.

Arson

Arson is defined as the intentional and wrongful burning of property (Black’s Law Dictionary). Intentionally set fires account for 25% of all fires in the United States and may account for over 20% of all human-caused wildland fires within many jurisdictions. According to the National Fire Protection Agency between the years of 2003-2006, three out of every four intentional set fires occur outside and have resulted in 20 civilian deaths, 219 civilian injuries, and $27 million in direct property damage.

An arsonist may set fires for a variety of reasons including profit, excitement, revenge, vandalism, other crime concealment, or extremism/terrorism; however, fire play or curiosity is the leading suspected motive. The average serial arsonist is charged with 2.7 counts and convicted on 2.5 counts, but is suspected of setting an average of 35 fires before being apprehended. Every fire set has potential for tragic consequences. Arson, often referred to as incendiary, is a very serious crime.

The only way to prevent arson is through recognition and aggressive prosecution. Early identification of the arsonist is critical. The key to early detection is to recognize the signs. Be aware that there are a variety of methods may be used to ignite an arson fire such as fireworks, matches, tracer bullets, incendiary devices, or a lighter. Know that there are things that you can do to help fire officials catch these individuals.

Arson Prevention Guidelines:

  • Recognize the warning signs of juvenile fire setting.
  • Report unusual behavior of individuals in the area of the fire to fire officials or proper authorities.
  • Be prepared to identify those individuals. Note height, weight, age, hair color, race, sex, and any individual identifiers such as tattoos, body piercings, and possible physical handicaps (limping, missing an arm, etc.).
  • Be prepared to identify suspect vehicles or other forms of transportation that an arsonist may use such as a bicycle or motorcycle. Note make, model, color, and most critically, the license plate number. Direction of travel and number of appearances on the scene may also be useful information for officials to catch the perpetrator.

Who is responsible?

If you suspect an individual of arson, report them to the authorities immediately. Arson is a felony and any person convicted can be sent to prison and court ordered to pay the monetary cost of recovery for damages to property and/or life that resulted from this criminal act.

Cars, Trucks, & Trailers

What is summer without a road trip? Every year millions of people take to the road whether it is for vacation or work, summer is the time to travel. What many people don’t realize though is the number of wildland fires caused by vehicles during those prime travel months.

The National Fire Protection Agency reports that between the years of 2002-2005, highway-type vehicle fires accounted for 18% of all reported fires and 13% of U.S. civilian deaths. Three-quarters of highway vehicle fires resulted from mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions.

There are many ignition sources on your vehicle including your trailer. Bearings that aren’t greased properly, dragging trailer chains, catalytic converters failing, older exhaust systems that build up carbon, flat tires, or the lack of performing regularly scheduled vehicle maintenance could all lead to a fire in the hot, dry months of summer. While maintaining your vehicle to its peak performance, it is also important to remember that a hot exhaust system could start a fire just by driving over or parking on dry grass.

Vehicle maintenance and awareness is crucial to preventing fires. For more information, contact the American Automobile Association at 1-800-AAA-HELP or visit the AAA Web site.

Vehicle Use Guidelines

Tips to remember before you hit the road.

  1. Maintain your vehicle and trailer. Perform regularly scheduled maintenance to help prevent mechanical breakdowns or failures. Have your vehicles inspected at least annually by a trained, professional technician.
  2. Check fluids. Brakes or transmissions that overheat due to the lack of fluids could shatter, casting off hot metal fragment.
  3. Watch for fluid leaks under vehicles, cracked or blistered hoses, or wiring that is loose, has exposed metal or has cracked insulation. Have any of these conditions inspected and repaired as soon as possible.
  4. Grease wheel bearings. Trailers that sit for long periods of time without use or boat trailers that are in and out of the water need more attention. Inspect before you role.
  5. Check tire pressure and wear to prevent blow-outs. Tires in good condition will also help increase your gas mileage, saving you time and money.
  6. Be alert to changes in the way your vehicle sounds when running, or to a visible plume of exhaust coming from the tailpipe. A louder than usual exhaust tone, smoke coming from the tailpipe or a backfiring exhaust could mean problems or damage to the high-temperature exhaust and emission control system on the vehicle. Have vehicles inspected and repaired as soon as possible if exhaust or emission control problems are suspected. Catalytic converters can break down over time throwing out hot ceramic particles or carbon that builds up in your system may eject particles reaching temperatures of 1,600 degrees F.
  7. Keep your vehicle aligned. A misaligned axle could cause your tire to ignition.
  8. Check trailer safety chains to make sure they are not hitting the ground. Dragging chains can throw sparks.
  9. Stay on designated roads and never park or drive over dry grass. The exterior of your exhaust system can reach temperatures up to 2800 degrees F. Also, vegetation could gather on top of your exhaust system causing it to ignite.
  10. Drive according to posted speed limits and other traffic rules. Remain alert to changing road conditions at all times.

Who is responsible?

Vehicle and trailer maintenance is the first step to preventing fires cause by mechanical breakdown or failure. Remember, you could be held liable for costs associated with a fire that was started by your car, truck, or trailer that has not been properly maintained.

Firearms

The use of firearms for hunting and target practice on public land has been a long standing right and tradition. Over the last eight years, however, we have seen an increase in wildland fire starts due to careless target shooting practices. While tracer, incendiary, and exploding targets are not allowed on public lands due to its fire starting potential, the majority of fires have been attributed to steel core ammunition. It is legal to shoot ammunition made with steel; however, bullets made with a steel component may spark a fire when they strike another metal object or rock.

Between the years of 2000-2008, 5% of the human caused fires on the Boise District BLM alone have been attributed to shooting. Tracer and incendiary ammunition has accounted for 8 fire starts while steel core or bimetal ammunition has been attributed to 20 wildland fires within that time period. There was only one reported ignition caused by black powder muzzle loader.

In order to avoid costly fines and citations, make sure you know your target, what type of ammunition you are shooting, and where you are shooting. It is also important to know that some areas may be posted closed to shooting to protect wildlife habitat. There may be other restrictions posted in different justifications. Check for restrictions in the area you may be shooting by contacting your local Forest Service, BLM, or IDL Office.

Firearms Use Guidelines

  1. Have a shovel, water, and fire extinguisher ready when shooting in our wildlands
  2. Avoid shooting at rocks, metal, dry vegetation or exploding targets during fire season
  3. Never shoot tracer or incendiary ammunition
  4. Do not shoot steel-core or bimetal bullets during fire season. If you are not sure your bullets are steel, test them by holding a magnet over the bullets; if a bullet is attracted to the magnet it has a steel component.
  5. Avoid shooting on hot, dry and/or windy days
  6. Clean up your targets and casings when finished shooting

Who is responsible?

It is important to remember that the deliberate misuse of firearms can lead to fines and citations. Play it safe and abide by the guidelines above or you may be held liable for a wildfire that starts from you shooting.

Smoking

Careless smoking is one of many activities that can result in unwanted human caused fires; particularly when the weather is hot and the vegetation is dry. Summer weather makes many people want to take to the outdoors for hiking, camping, or other recreating, yet they don’t realize that they need to be extremely cautious about discarding their cigarette butts and matches. Perhaps the biggest issue with wildfires caused by smoking is that in many instances the person who started the fire walks away without ever realizing what they have done.

Smokers have a responsibility to know that there is an inherent risk of wildfire associated with smoking. They should pay extra attention to their local fire danger ratings and fire restrictions. As a courtesy to non-smokers, they should carefully discard all smoking materials properly, whether they are standing in a concrete parking lot or in the middle of a dry grassy field. Utilize the following guidelines to build good habits all of the time; this will help to ensure that costly mistakes are not made.

Smoking Guidelines

  • Never throw smoking materials out of a car window. Always use your cars’ ashtray, and make sure all butts are completely out
    before throwing them into the trash. Besides, any discarded material thrown from a vehicle is considered littering.
  • In and around buildings, limit smoking to designated areas, and use approved smoking receptacles.
  • Do not discard butts in landscaped areas. The shredded bark used for landscaping purposes can be extremely dry, very combustible, and can create an environment for butts to smolder in for a long period of time.
  • Smoke only in areas that are free from excess grass and other vegetation
  • Be aware that in many states (including Idaho) that fire restrictions place limitations on smoking
  • Be sure to properly dispose of cigarette butts along with all other trash you generate

Who is responsible?

Carelessly or negligently discarding cigarette butts can lead to fines and/or citations. Additionally, it is important to remember that if a fire starts from your cigarette, you run the risk of being prosecuted and forced to pay the monetary cost of recovery for damages to property and/or life that resulted from your careless act.

Fireworks

Fireworks have come to be an exciting and traditional part of many annual 4th of July celebrations; however fireworks, even small ones, are dangerous. They can cause fires and even injuries. Based on an eleven year average from the National Fire Protection Association, statistics show that over 32,000 fires occur annually due to the mishandling of fireworks, with 90% occurring outdoors. Furthermore, over 3,000 structures and vehicles will be lost (costing the general public over $30 million in property damage), and hospital emergency rooms will treat approximately 10,000 people for injuries incurred while using fireworks each year.

It is also important to know that firework use is illegal in many areas; including on federal land. In order to avoid costly fines and citations, make sure you know where firework use is allowed, the types of fireworks that are appropriate for that area (don’t assume that an area that allows fireworks, will allow all types of fireworks), and make sure you establish and communicate family boundaries for lighting fireworks.

To learn more visit the National Council on Firework Safety website, then test your knowledge by taking their firework safety quiz http://www.fireworksafety.com/home.htm.

Firework Use Guidelines

Fireworks can be fun AND safe if the following precautions are taken when lighting them.

  1. Follow your established family boundaries. Only a designated adult should light fireworks
  2. Light one firework at a time, move away quickly, and keep at a safe distance until the display is finished
  3. Use fireworks only outdoors, being sure to stay far away from anything that can burn
  4. Make sure you have a bucket of water present to extinguish all fireworks completely after they have finished burning
  5. To prevent injuries, never throw fireworks and never hold fireworks in your hand
  6. If a device does not light or fire, an adult should wait at least fifteen minutes and approach it carefully
  7. Be sure all unused fireworks matches and lighters are out of the sight and reach of children
  8. Clean up all debris when finished

Who is responsible?

It is important to remember that the deliberate misuse of fireworks can lead to fines and citations. It is also important to understand that you may be held liable for a wildfire that starts as a result of firework use. Be safe and use fireworks cautiously.

Debris Burning

  • Build debris piles in openings away from structures, trees, overhead branches, and power lines.
  • Clear litter and grass a minimum of 5-6 feet way form piles.
  • Keep piles small – approximately 4-5 feet in diameter and height. High, narrow piles burn better than low, wide ones.
  • Covered piles can be burned during periods of wet weather when escape is not a concern. If covered with plastic, remove it before burning the pile.
  • Keep piles free of dirt. Wet or dirt-covered materials burn poorly causing the fire to smolder and emit more smoke.
  • Check with your local fire departments before burning large tree slash piles because they burn hot and are difficult to control flying embers.