For a seventh-grade project, Christy Bushman had to write a report about her happy place. Now 41 and a mother of three, she still remembers what she picked:
Few things, the Murray resident said, were better than campfires at her family’s cabin.
“That was just where we would sit and my grandparents would tell stories and you would just visit,” Bushman said. “The smoke, the smells, the heat of it. It just is all ….”
Bushman closed her eyes and let out a big sigh sealed with a smile. At that moment, she happened to be sitting near a fire ring at a picnic spot in Millcreek Canyon, the familiar smell of burning wood hanging in the air while girls from a neighborhood camp that her daughter was attending giggled as they made s’mores, dodged wafts of smoke and created their own memories.
What snapped Bushman out of her reminiscence, though, is the notion that summer campfires could be, in the not-so-distant future, a thing grandparents tell stories about rather than around.
Utah has been taking the fire out of camping more and more often in recent years, especially during the summer. As aridification turns much of the state to tinder and humans find multitudes of ways to ignite it, local land management agencies — including the BLM, the United States Forest Service and the State of Utah — have had to impose more severe restrictions on where and how people can light fires. New temporary restrictions put in place Monday mean campfires are not allowed on public lands in about two-thirds of the state unless they are within the confines of an agency- or campground-provided pit. Some parts of Utah, such as Grand and San Juan counties, don’t allow open fires at all, and haven’t since early June.
“Most of us would love to sit around a campfire. It’s a great thing for all of us to enjoy,” said Bob Ferrell, a fire education and mitigation specialist for BLM Utah, which imposed Stage 1 restrictions on almost all its lands statewide, including in Summit and Wasatch counties. “However... right now we’re incredibly hot and dry and in a long-term drought.”
But it’s not just the drought that’s the issue. Ferrell said one of the main factors in determining whether campfires should be restricted in an area is how many wildfires are already active.
Humans spark between 70-80% of Utah’s wildfires each year, Ferrell estimated. (Nationwide, it’s closer to 85%, according to the National Forest Service.) Of the 533 fires tracked by Utahfireinfo.gov this season, at least 331 of them were lit by humans, with another 41 having unknown origins. So, it stands to reason, with more people spurred into the wilderness by the pandemic, the chances of one inadvertently starting a wildfire goes up.
And campfires rank among the top three ways we start wildfires, according to data being tracked by Kayli Yardley, the prevention and communications coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Yardley said they trail just behind agricultural and debris burns and those sparked by vehicles. Even fireworks haven’t done as much damage as campfires.
More visceral proof of what damage an untended or improperly doused campfire can do could be seen in the thick towers of smoke and wall of fire that rose up near the town of Fillmore in central Utah just as Bushman and the “Girlfriends Club” were enjoying their cookout last week.
As of Tuesday, the Halfway Hill wildfire has devoured more than 11,500 acres mostly in the Fish Lakes National Forest. It has threatened a subdivision and ancient hieroglyphs and, at just 46% containment with more 100-degree days in the forecast, that might not be the last of it. Investigators traced the cause of the fire back to a dispersed camping site on state land where the campfire was not properly extinguished. Four people have been arrested for starting the blaze.
“You will be held responsible if you start a fire,” Gov. Spencer Cox said last week from Tooele County, with another wildfire, the Jacob City fire, burning miles behind him. “You will be held civilly responsible and you may be held criminally responsible if you violate any laws in starting that fire.”
Halfway Hill is one of 22 wildfires this year that has been traced back to a campfire, according to Ferrell of the BLM. While that’s far below the 77 from 2019 and 128 from 2020, it puts 2022 well on pace to surpass the 37 campfire-caused wildfires that occurred in 2021.
As she has watched the destruction caused by the Halfway Hill fire, Yardley said she thinks banning campfires in the summer would be the best option. But, she acknowledges, it wouldn’t be a popular or very practical one.
“I think it would be beneficial,” she said. “But everybody has that typical camping (nostalgia):’ I have to have a wood-burning fire.’ Right? ‘It has put off the smoke, that’s part of camping, that’s part of the experience.’ And I can push and say, ‘Well, heck, you can do that with a propane pit as well. It has the on-off that makes it even better.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, but it’s just not the same.’”
Though they don’t provide the same crackle (nor the smoke and, hence, air pollution), BLM and other agencies typically permit propane-fueled campfires even where they have enacted the more-stringent Stage 2 restrictions, where all wood, charcoal and briquette fires are banned, even when contained to an agency-approved fire ring. But propane fires can be a bulky haul for backpackers or dispersed campers. Gathering around a tiny cook stove or, worse, a lantern, doesn’t conjure the same ambiance.
Cheree Larson can attest to that. A Murray mom of five and the scout leader of sorts for the Girlfriends Club that gathered in Millcreek Canyon last week, Larson recalled taking a family backpacking trip into the Uinta Mountains one year when a fire ban was in effect.
“There’s [typically] all this time spent every night singing and just talking around the fire — and sitting around a lantern is not the same,” she said. “Which you’re not, like, trying to move your chair, dodging the smoke, but there’s no comfort in it. Like, everybody’s wrapped in their blankets, and you just want to go get in your tent.”
But at least they figured out a way to make s’mores before tucking in for the night, right? Nope.
“One of the uncles just brought, like, different kinds of bad cookies,” she said. “It was so sad.”
Those are the kinds of sacrifices that could have to be made more often, however, as the effects of climate change take hold. Utah has experienced eight of its 10 warmest years on record since 2012 while simultaneously seeing its snowpack decrease. That makes for prime conditions for wildfires.
Yardley, for one, has hope, though. Not for the traditional campfire, necessarily, but that people will still find their happy place at a summer cookout without one.
“I could argue and argue and argue, but I don’t think that it’s going to be seen with this generation. Maybe it will become more common with the next couple of generations coming up,” she said. “They’re seeing and experiencing the catastrophic wildfire and the impact. Just in the last 10 years we’ve seen an uptick in having a season.
“It’s not a season anymore. It’s a fire year.”