Whether you’re camping in the wilderness or simply relaxing in the backyard, a crackling campfire offers light, warmth and a place to roast delicious snacks. There’s something about the dancing flames and woody smoke that’s utterly soothing, especially in the fall, when weather cools and the days grow short.
If you’re new to building campfires, they can sometimes be a challenge to light and maintain. Plus, there are certain laws you should know about what you can burn and where.
Furthermore, if not built correctly and in the right place, campfires can easily cause forest fires. In fact, campfires are the third leading cause of forest fires in Maine this year, according to Forest Ranger Thomas Liba. Of the 1,050 fires the Maine Forest Service has responded to, 159 have been the result of a campfire, he said.
“I was just out on the Appalachian Trail the day before yesterday for an unextinguished campfire,” he said. “And last week, out on Seboeis Lake, an acre and a half burned because of an unextinguished, illegal campfire.”
So before you strike a match, here are a few things you should know about building a campfire in Maine.
You may need a permit
Organized towns may have ordinances that require campfire permits, but the state does not require campfire permits for a small recreational campfire on property you own. Therefore, before building a campfire in an organized town, check with local fire officials or the town office to see if a campfire permit is required.
In unorganized towns, the Maine Forest Service issues campfire permits for remote “permit” campsites. Recreational maps often distinguish between campsites that require a permit and campsites that don’t require a permit, which are less common.
Campfire permits for “permit” sites can be obtained by contacting the local forest ranger, but the Maine Forest Service recommends calling the Maine Forest Service regional headquarters (that’s closest to the unorganized town you’re looking to build a campfire in) Monday through Friday the day before you need the permit. Due to changing fire danger levels, campfire permits are not issued more than two days in advance.
“When in doubt, call because rangers would love to answer questions over writing a ticket,” Liba said.
A burning permit, which is different from a campfire permit, is for burning brush piles and wood debris. This type of fire is often larger and may be subject to more restrictions.
Check the fire danger rating
Before lighting a fire, it’s best to check the daily fire danger rating in your area. This rating, on a scale of 1 through 5 or green through red, will give you an idea of how many factors that day could contribute to a campfire getting out of control and possibly becoming a forest fire. Things like wind and moisture level are taken into account when determining fire danger. On the scale, 1 or green means low fire danger, while 5 or red means extreme fire danger.
You can check the daily fire danger rating of different regions in Maine at mainefireweather.org.
“The onus is on you to make sure you’re being safe,” Liba said. “So if it’s windy, we’d like you to choose not to have a campfire.”
Campfires should be kept small
While there’s no strict guidelines for how to build a campfire, their size and use is important. In general, campfires are small and contained, and intended for recreational purposes.
“We’re talking the stereotypical campfire — small diameter, low flames, just for enjoyment, cooking, warmth, sitting around at the end of the day,” Liba said.
Bonfires or burn piles are entirely different. They tend to be much larger, and their purpose is to burn a great amount of material. For these larger types of fires, a burning permit is required. For this, the Maine Forest Service offers an online burning permit system at www.maineburnpermit.com.
How to contain your fire
A wide variety of different structures can be used to help contain your campfire. One common structure is a ring built of stone, metal or some other type of noncombustible material. Other options include a variety of commercially-made fire pits and chimineas.
If using a fire ring, it’s important to clear combustible materials such as sticks and dead leaves away from the edges of the ring. A good rule of thumb is to clear the perimeter at a length that’s least 1.5 times the diameter of the fire ring, Liba said. In addition, add crushed stone or mineral soil to that area.
“Add something that isn’t going to burn if the campfire goes beyond that campfire ring,” Liba said. “Look for overhanging branches that could dry out and ignite overhead as well.”
You can’t burn just anything
In Maine, it’s illegal to burn trash and most manmade materials in a campfire. The only debris that can be burned is “wood wastes” that are free from metal, plastics, coatings and chemical treatments. Examples of wood wastes are brush, stumps and wood chips. Painted and unpainted wood, paper and cardboard are also OK to burn, in accordance with Maine law.
In addition, your firewood must originate from Maine. Maine currently has a ban on firewood from out of state to slow the spread of invasive forest pests such as the emerald ash borer.
Different types of wood burn differently. In general, conifer species burn fast and hot, Liba said, while hardwood burns slow.
“Any good dry wood will suffice in getting a fire going,” Liba said. “I like using some birch bark and some pine twigs, then maybe some cedar, which burns quickly and hot to get the fire going. Then, for a long-lasting fire, beech and maple give a good bed of coals.”
Liba also says to steer clear of burning fallen leaves in your campfire. In fact, rake leaves away from your fire so there’s no chance of them igniting, he said.
“They smoke a lot and they blow around,” Liba said. “They may escape your fire ring and result in a forest fire.”
Start small and be patient
One of the most common mistakes people make when building a campfire is making it too big, too fast, Liba said.
“When you put wood on a fire, it takes a little time for it to combust,” he said. “A lot of times people pile on a lot of wood and then suddenly have a much larger fire than intended.”
Start small and be patient. Before you know it, you’ll have a toasty campfire to gather around while spending time outdoors.