Camping Awareness: Wildfire Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life

If you’re wondering what causes wildfires, read on. Here is your complete guide to understanding the most common causes and how campers can practice fire safety.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

—Bob Dylan

Yet, knowing which way the wind will be blowing will give you a massive advantage in understanding the behavior of wildfires.

It took only a handful of days between the disappearance of snow in the Santa Fe National Forest and the start of the Cerro Pelado fire, a growing blaze that has threatened two units of the National Park Service (NPS) in New Mexico in an early season signal that the coming summer months will be smoky in many parts west of the Rockies. 

Salt River Canyon Wilderness, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fire restrictions, imposed county by county, appear to arise more often during the wildfire season. The days of explorers ambling into Colorado’s backcountry, gathering kindling, and sparking a fire for some supper and perhaps a s’more or two are gone. Long gone, the Denver Post recently (May 5, 2022) reported.

“The state’s too dry. Too warm. Wildfire risk is too high and the season lasts all year now. The danger of a camper accidentally sparking a devastating wildfire is too serious.”

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yes, the 2022 wildfire season is underway and it’s striking with a vengeance. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Fire near Santa Fe, New Mexico had burned more than 168,000 acres as of last Friday (May 7, 2022) and was only 20 percent contained. It had already destroyed at least 277 structures including 166 residential buildings and was threatening thousands more. So far, more than 300,000 acres had burned in the state more than all of last year.

Lynx Lake, Prescott National Forest, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meanwhile, in Florida, more than 22,000 acres have burned in recent days. Both fires serve to remind us to check ahead where we’re headed with our RVs and to be extra careful with fire.

With the devastating destruction caused by wildfires, it’s hard to imagine that a single ember is all it can take to start an inferno. Yet, this is often the case—and in most cases humans are to blame. Wildfires are classified as either naturally occurring or human-caused. According to NPS, human-caused wildfires are significantly more common with human involvement triggering 85 percent to 90 percent of all wildfires.

The NPS also estimates that only about 10 percent of wildfires are started by natural causes such as lightning.

Saguaro Lake, Arizona

For any fire to occur, there are three elements needed—heat, fuel, and oxygen:

  • Heat: Many potential heat sources can create embers and ignite wildfires. Many of these are human-caused which I will cover in more detail below.
  • Fuel: An arid climate and abundant, bone dry vegetation provides copious amounts of fuel for wildfires.
  • Oxygen: California’s infamous Santa Ana winds produce gusts averaging 45-50 mph with record gusts clocked at over 160 mph. These winds fan the flames and spread embers, leading to truly devastating wildfires.
Sequoia National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildfires can start in a variety of ways. A dry climate, abundant winds, and dried vegetation provide prime conditions for a wildfire—and it only takes a single ember to ignite and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres and place humans and personal belongs at risk.

Here’s a close look at the top four heat sources that are the most common cause of wildfires:

  • Burning debris: Embers from burning debris are one of the most common causes of wildfires. In windy weather, escaped embers can carry for miles without extinguishing.
  • Unattended campfires: We typically associate campfires with beautiful memories, like s’mores and stories with loved ones. However, despite a campfire’s summertime appeal, they are one of the leading causes of wildfires.  California’s Ham Lake Fire (2007) which destroyed 75,000 acres and hundreds of properties is just one example of the devastation that a single campfire can cause.
  • Power lines/electrical equipment: Electrical lines and related equipment can break in high winds and spark, igniting flames in tinder-dry vegetation that can spread quickly in high winds. Fallen power lines are the third most common cause of wildfires in California. In some cases, it only takes a branch falling from a tree and striking a power line to create sparks. Over the past six years, more than 1,500 Californian wildfires were caused by fallen power lines including the deadliest fire in history—the Camp Fire (2018) which razed 90 percent of the town of Paradise killing 86 people and destroying more than 13,900 homes. The lines malfunctioned on a dry hillside near a windy canyon.
  • Discarded cigarettes: One of the biggest causes of fires is discarded cigarette butts. In 1997, there were 130,000 cigarette related fires. In 2017 this problem resulted in over $2 billion in costs associated with putting these fires out and $6 billion in loss of property. In addition to causing fires, cigarette butts pose another risk: they are hazardous to the environment. Cigarette butts leach toxins into the water and kill or injure various forms of wildlife. The plastic parts of cigarette butts can be ingested by fish, birds, whales, and other marine animals and the toxicity can accumulate up the food chain.
Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The list above is by no means exhaustive. Other common causes of wildfires include:

  • Equipment use and malfunctions: The fifth-largest fire in California history, the Zaca Fire (2007) was caused by sparks from a metal grinder.
  • Vehicle crashes and engine sparks: The Carr Fire (2018) was caused by sparks from a trailer’s faulty wheel rim creating sparks on the road.
  • Arson: Two Colorado residents face charges of felony arson for their roles in starting the Lake Christine Fire in 2018.
  • Lightning: Lightning caused the 2012 Rush Fire in Lassen County, California.
Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

Regardless of how wildfires are started, they are highly unpredictable and can be deadly. With the severe heat, drought conditions, and wildfires burning across much of the western US states and Canada, those who are out adventuring need to be aware of wildfire conditions and what can be done to keep you and your family safe in the backcountry.

Know the current wildfire conditions and fire restrictions for the area you are traveling.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check with the national forest, state, and county as individual governing entities may have different restrictions.  Driving routes may be impacted, so check your route for road closures and cautions. Also, keep in mind that fire conditions and restrictions can change often, so check frequently so that you know what is permitted or restricted. Closures and restrictions aren’t put in place to ruin your camping trip; they are put in place for safety reasons. Take them seriously.

Frances Beider Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose a campsite that has more than one escape route. 

Have more than one way that you can leave the area. You might be tempted to camp way up in that canyon near the end of the road but if your access is cut off from a fire, you will have no way to leave.

Park for a quick departure.

Back into the spot if you need to so that should you need to leave quickly, you don’t have to worry about jockeying around in the smoke to get out.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do not start a wildfire. This involves knowing what is not allowed and being responsible for your actions. Make sure you don’t spill flammable liquids and ensure cook stoves, barbecues, and lanterns are cold to the touch before storing them. Seemingly innocuous things like smoking outside or mosquito candles may lead to fire danger under the right (or wrong) conditions. If you are permitted to have a campfire, be sure it is completely extinguished before you leave.

Wildfire smoke from across state lines obscured the skies over Gatlinburg, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you do see an unattended fire or out of control fire, contact the authorities by calling 911 or the forest service immediately.

The sooner a problem is reported, the faster people can start taking action to get it under control or extinguished.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t discard cigarettes, matches, or smoking materials on the ground. Drown them in a glass of water then put them in the trash. No one wants to see that litter anyhow.

If you are asked to evacuate, do so immediately.

Stowe, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are camping in the backcountry, there is likely not going to be anyone to tell you that a fire is in the area, so be aware of conditions and get yourself out if you see or smell smoke. Do not be tempted to linger for photos. Don’t drive slowly looking at flames.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If everything has gone wrong, you are in trouble. Don’t try to outrun the fire. If possible, get yourself submerged in a body of water (pond, river) as fast as you can. If there is no water, find a depression (low area) with as little vegetation as possible. Lie low to the ground and cover yourself with wet clothing. Protect your lungs as best as you can and stay down until the fire passes.  

Remember: you are responsible for your safety and for the safety of those around you.

See also:

Worth Pondering…

Don’t forget what Smokey Bear says: Only YOU can prevent wildfires!

The Safe Use of Electric Space Heaters in your RV

Use electric space heaters with care

Electric space heaters can be dangerous if they are not used correctly.

In 2020, two snowbirds died after a fire broke out in the early morning in their RV at the Highbanks Marina Camp and Resort in DeBary, Florida. Investigators said multiple space heaters, extension cords, and power strips were in use and that a space heater ignited the fire near the only exit. Firefighters were called to the home around 4:15 a.m. Officials said the blaze broke out near the single entrance to the RV and said that although the couple had been alerted by a working smoke detector, they were not able to get out.

Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, in 2021, in Tucson, Arizona there was an RV fire around midnight which resulted in the death of a small dog. According to Tucson Fire Department (TFD), it took 14 firefighters 30 minutes to put out the fire limiting damage to the nearby RV to a burnt awning and melted plastic around the door. TFD officials believe the fire started from an unattended space heater.

TFD reminded the public that space heaters should never be left unattended and offered the following reminders:

  • Always place space heaters on a level, flat surface
  • Never place heaters on cabinets, tables, furniture, or carpet
  • Never leave a space heater running overnight or when you are asleep
Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re camped in an RV park with full hookups and not paying extra for electric usage it makes sense to take advantage of the power to heat your RV rather than using the propane you have to pay for separately. There’s also the fact that heat pumps and furnaces are, in most cases, very noisy. And there’s a third good reason. Unless the campground has a power outage, you don’t have to worry about running out of electricity.

Related Article: How to Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in your RV?

Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use space heaters with care

So why wouldn’t this be a great way to heat your rig? What could be the downside of it? 

Are electric space heaters really dangerous?

Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Well, don’t just take my word for it. Perhaps some advice from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) might help. According to the NFPA space heaters were the single most likely cause of a home fire over any other source of heat. In fact, 53 percent of home fires related to heating were caused by space heaters according to their 2018 report, the last year the information was reported. 

Related Article: Maintain Your RV: What You Absolutely Need To Know To Avoid Disasters on the Road

Space heaters all essentially max out at 1500 watts which means you can draw about 12.5 amps from the wall outlet. If your space heater does not have a thermostat, this continuous draw can heat up the wiring in the RV which could result in a fire, particularly if it’s compromised in any way. 

Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Electric space heaters can help warm a room quickly. However, they can be as dangerous as convenient if not used properly. Everyone needs to understand the importance of using space heaters safely. Here’s what safeelectricity.org says about the safe use of space heaters:

  • Purchase only space heaters that have been safety tested and UL approved
  • Make sure the unit has an emergency tip-over/shut-off feature and heating element guards
  • Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for operation and care
  • Before using a space heater, make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are in good working condition
  • Make sure the heater is clean and in good condition
  • Place the heater out of high-traffic areas and on a level, hard, non-flammable floor surface—NOT on carpets, furniture, or countertops
  • NEVER use space heaters to thaw pipes or dry clothing or towels
  • Keep space heaters at least three feet from combustible liquids such as fuel, spray cans, and paint and flammable items such as draperies, blankets, towels, and sofas
  • NEVER allow pets or children near an electric heater; accidental contact can cause serious shock or burns
  • DO NOT overload circuits
  • NEVER use extension cords or multiple plugs with a space heater and make sure not to plug the unit into the same circuit as other electric appliances
  • Never leave space heaters unattended—turn off and unplug before leaving the room or going to bed
  • Replace older space heaters with newer, safer models
Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But electrical fires aren’t the only reason using a space heater can be a concern. Most RVs have heated and enclosed underbellies that use the heat from the central furnace to warm the area so the water lines and holding tanks don’t freeze. 

Related Article: The 10 Essentials Every RV Owner Should Buy Before Their First Road Trip

If you’re using a space heater to warm the RV, this may not provide sufficient warmth to keep the pipes and tanks from freezing and that could be a major problem. If the temperature is below freezing set your RV thermostat on a low setting so that the underbelly and interior of the coach stay above freezing. 

Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Final thoughts

Many space heater fires are caused by plugging them into an outlet strip or skinny extension cord. Always plug a portable space heater directly into a wall outlet, never a power strip. Outlet strips were never designed for the types of continuous high-amperage loads created by any electrical heating appliance. 

Locate a space heater at least three feet away from anything flammable. And make sure your dog can’t knock a blanket down on top of one.

Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Modern electric space heaters have tip-over and overheating protection. But that hasn’t always been the case with old heaters. Make sure your heater has all the safety controls.

Watch out for pet hair and fuzzies. Yes, pet hair will be sucked right into the fan on many of these heaters. That can cause an internal fire to start. Inspect your space heater for signs of dirt and hair. Use a can of compressed air to clean this kind of gunk out if it’s not too bad. But if it’s really caked on it’s time to buy a new space heater. Don’t take any chances with accumulated dirt and hair in a heating appliance.

Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use low power settings and inspect outlets and plugs for signs of overheating. Always run your heater on the low-power setting or 600 to 750 watts. The continuous draw of the high-wattage settings can cause RV outlets and heater plugs to overheat and possibly catch on fire. If you see any signs of discoloring or touching the plug with your hand feels warm, then the damage is beginning. And be aware that a GFCI outlet will do nothing to prevent overheating. That’s not what they were designed to do. And while you’re at it, take a look at the power plug for any signs of overheating.

Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s no good way to repair an electrical outlet once it begins to overheat since the spring contacts have probably been damaged and it will keep getting hotter and hotter until it melts. Once a wall outlet has been overheated, then it’s time for a replacement.

Some of the newer RVs are manufactured with space heaters in the form of an electric fireplace. They are simply a fancy space heater with a beautiful display but one that does incorporate a thermostat. 

Remember that electricity is a useful and powerful force, so we all need to pay attention to safety precautions while using it.

Read Next: Is Your RV Protected from Electrical Issues?

Stay safe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As always, a lot of common sense will help you to stay in the safe zone. Let’s play safe out there….

Worth Pondering…

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

—Marcus Aurelius

How Well Do You Know Your RV Park Neighbors?

When you stay in a RV park for more than a few days, you get to know your neighbors. Or do you?

The local police arrived at Zuni Village RV Park in central Kingman (Arizona) to tell stunned residents that they needed to get out—fast. Experts arrived with a robot to search Glenn Jones’ motorhome after connecting Jones to two bomb blasts that occurred 24-hours earlier in the small rural town of Panaca (Nevada), leaving one dead.

Canyon Gateway RV Park, Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once inside the RV, the bomb squad found and detonated numerous improvised explosive devices. They also removed 40 pounds of bomb-making materials kept inside the RV. Jones’ nearby storage unit may have also contained bomb-building ingredients.

Far Horizon 49er Village, Plymouth, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the scene processing, 10 of the IEDs were rendered safe in a vacant field just west of the RV park. The remaining five, larger, IEDs were removed to be detonated at another location.

Related: 12 Unspoken Etiquette Rules of RV Camping

Poche’s RV Park, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Later that day, Jones’ motorhome was towed away from Zuni Village RV Park; the park’s 100 residents were allowed back the next day.

According to the Associated Press, the 59-year-old man targeted the house because it belonged to two former co-workers. He drove a rented car to Panaca and detonated two bombs and fatally shot himself in the head before the blasts erupted.

Western Way RV Resort, Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee said residents Tiffany Cluff and two daughters fled barefoot from the house before the blast. Husband Joshua Cluff and another daughter weren’t home at the time.

Lakeside RV Park, Livingston, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back at Zuni Village, Jones was known as a quiet man who even cared for the elderly mother of another park resident. Although he had only been a resident of the RV park for six months, he apparently gave subtle clues to neighbors that something was amiss. In the months leading up to the bomb explosions, he told neighbors he was angry with his former employer, admitted to being severely depressed, and suddenly gave away hundreds of dollars to a neighbor.

Flag City RV Resort, Lodi, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to park neighbors, Jones:

“…had a fascination with shells and all things military”

“quiet and courteous but tormented”

Related: Consider Your Needs When Choosing RV Parks and Campgrounds

Las Quintas Oasis RV Park, Yuma, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nobody could have predicted that he was making bombs inside his RV and putting his neighbors at risk. According to the American Psychiatric Association, Jones’ behaviors that neighbors described were classic signs of mental illness.

Golden Village RV Park, Hemet, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Incidents such as the Kingman bomb scare can happen anywhere. Dangerous people in RV parks are no different than those living in traditional neighborhoods.

The best way to avoid any hazard is to be alert to your surroundings, stay out of areas that seem like trouble spots, watch for odd behaviors, and if something doesn’t feel right, turn the key and leave.

New Green Acres RV Park, Waterboro, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be cautious of rest areas and choose your campgrounds and RV parks carefully.

Related: Finding the Right RV Site

Keep your eyes open, follow your instincts, and don’t overnight in rest areas or other questionable locations.

Okefenokee RV Park, Folkston, Georgia

In general terms, RVing is a safe way to travel. Most campgrounds don’t attract a notorious criminal element.

However, the fastest way to become a statistic of a criminal act is to think it can’t happen to you. The first rule in avoiding crime is to accept that crime does indeed exist and that you are not immune.

Oh! Kentucky Campground and RV Park, Berea, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get in the habit of locking your rig every time you leave. This RV lockdown should include securing exterior storage compartments and windows as well.

Related: 5 Tips for Safe RV Travel

Close blinds and shades to make “casing the joint” a tougher task. Another perk? Shades keep the sun off the fabrics which reduces fading.

Gulf Coast RV Park, Beaumont, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The choice of the RV park itself is also important. Question management about security. Do they have nightly patrols? Is the park well lit? How hard is it for non-guests to come and go?

Whispering Hills RV Park, Georgetown, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every city has its bad parts of town. Avoid these. Lose that wide-eyed touristy look and stay alert to your surroundings. 

Worth Pondering…

Stay safe wherever you are and find time to enjoy each day!