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No Campfires

More campfires are being snuffed out due to wildfire risks. Credit: Tailyr Irvine/The Washington Post

The hum of RV generators and faint whiff of pine lent ambiance on a recent evening to the Charles Waters Campground in the Bitterroot Mountains, according to the Hermiston Herald.

Absent were the crackle and hiss of campfires and the distinctive scent of burning wood.

Wildfire danger was extreme in this southwest Montana national forest during the hot late summer days, according to authorities. And bright yellow notices on the campground’s picnic tables, bulletin boards and water spigots informed campers of one consequence: No campfires.

Randy Carroll, 74 and sporting a poof of white beard, sat next to his van amid tall ponderosas. His Chihuahua, Dinky, scurried about. Save for some old ashes, his site’s fire ring sat empty — missing fellow travelers who might trade stories around it and the Dutch oven that Carroll often bakes bread in over glowing charcoal briquettes.

“When you build a fire and you’re sitting beside a fire, you’re controlling one of the most powerful elements in the world,” said Carroll, who spends summers in the forests of the West. But bread isn’t on the menu these days, he said. “I’m not allowed to because there’s a fire ban.”

Amid record-breaking heat waves, larger and longer wildfires and a megadrought, many fire officials are limiting or prohibiting campfires, which the U.S. Forest Service says caused 30% of fires on its land over the past decade.

Pitching a tent this summer in parts of Oregon, in Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, on the shores of California’s New Melones Lake or in the vast Western Nevada desert? Fires weren’t allowed — and may still be outlawed. Even Rhode Island banned campfires at state parks for part of August, citing drought.

Fire restrictions remain in the Deschutes National Forest, according to a notice posted Thursday (Sept. 29) by Central Oregon fire officials. Campfires are only allowed in open, designated, developed campgrounds. In the Ochoco National Forest, Crooked River National Grassland and Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville District, officials began to allow campfires Friday in developed campgrounds.

The bans are both a reflection of today’s extreme summer conditions and a sign of halting efforts to slow the worst impacts of climate change: With broader solutions far off, experts and officials say, attempting to prevent human-sparked blazes is at least one concrete and immediate step to avert calamity. But as campfires are snuffed out, so is the American tradition of roasting marshmallows and hot dogs and the far more ancient ritual of human bonding around crackling flames.

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