by Nathaniel Rose
Nathaniel Rose is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.
“I went camping with my family when I was growing up. And I still love campfire marshmallows. For me, it’s very important. They have to be burnt. Like, I want the flaming ball that I get to blow out. And then I eat it. A lot of people like it just to be lightly toasted and brown on the outside. And soft. Nope, it’s got to be charred. And so that’s how I eat a marshmallow.”
If you have a conversation about campfires, roasting marshmallows is bound to come up. As was the case with Dani Money, the Planning Section Head at BC Parks, when I sat down with her to discuss the future of the campfire. I’m sure after that introduction, you’re dying to know how I, Nathaniel Rose, Knowledge Gatherer for Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation eat a marshmallow, but I’m not going to tell you.
Okay I will. I actually prefer to roast them slowly, down near the embers, so that they cook evenly through. So you can imagine my disappointment with Dani, when I heard she likes to burn hers to a crisp. Okay, kidding again. But I think this brings to light one of the beautiful things about a campfire – it allows for people to have experiences that they wouldn’t have anywhere else. And a lot of these experiences are social and provide a feeling of happiness or contentment.
That’s why the future of the campfire is such an important issue. So I was thrilled to get to talk about this Dani Money about it. After conducting some research, here’s a bit of what we came up with:
Fires have been used by the human population for millennia. Not only did the discovery of fire allow us to cook our food increasing brain function, but fires gave us a space to socialize and build community. When fires first became popular with our (human) species, they added four hours to our working day (1). Cooking and eating didn’t take up the whole extra four hours so it opened up a time slot that could only be used for conversation and storytelling (1). There wasn’t enough light to forage for food and make tools but there was enough light to interact socially (1). Having fires therefore was essential to community building.
Today, campfires are still prevalent, especially in the park setting. Campfires in parks have been used to keep warm, cook and socialize for generations. I bet a park leader today would not be able to argue with the fact that campfires are a key component of the camping experience.
However, as park leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure the health of visitors. Do the benefits of campfires outweigh the negative aspects? Let’s take a look:
Campfires have many health impacts and are also a cause of air pollution. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency in the United States), fine particles from woodsmoke can trigger asthma attacks, make asthma symptoms worse, make you more susceptible to lung infections including that from Co-vid 19, and trigger heart attacks, strokes, and irregular heart conditions, especially in those already prone to these conditions (6).
Campfires can also cause noise disturbances as people stay up late into the night socializing around the fire.
It is also possible that campfire wood that visitors bring in could hold invasive species within the wood. This could introduce the species into the park area, that could have a potentially damaging effect on the local tree population or ecosystem. One example of invasive species that was brought into parts of BC, and widespread in Eastern Canada is the Gypsy moth (3). This insect eats the leaves of trees to an alarming effect, making it hard for the trees to survive.
Another invasive species that has been recently affecting large parts of Southern Ontario is the Emerald Ash Borer. It is a wood-boring beetle, that “bores” through Ash tree trunks, eating through and inhabiting the wood. It is native to China and the Russian Far East and arrived in Canada in the 1990s, most likely on wood packaging material (4). According to the Government of Canada, millions of trees have been killed due to this Beetle’s infestation. (4)
“The Emerald Ash Borer affected the area around my cottage on Southern Georgian Bay. We had to take more than eleven ash trees down on my property as the insect had chewed its way through their trunks. You can actually see the little pathways in the wood where the Ash Borer drilled its way through, eating the wood. A good tip would be to check your firewood for signs of insect infestation before use”
After a quick summary of these negative impacts, one might want to go running as far away from a campfire as possible. But there are also many positive impacts to campfires.
Campfires have many social and cultural uses that the average person may not have thought of. Shawn Davis, a professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennslvania notes that because campfires are built in a circular fashion, people face one another, which provides more opportunity for connection than say watching the television would, where people sit in a linear fashion (2). Jennifer Willford, associate professor of psychology notes that being around a fire creates “comfortable emotions” of happiness, tranquility, and connection. It can elicit positive emotions that allow us to be more open and also allow us to be more present without the daily distractions of cellphones (2). Campfires also have a therapeutic effect: the sound of fire crackling can have a calming affect on humans and act as a de-stressor (2), just as the trickling of water in streams or the sound of the breeze through leaves of a tree would do the same.
Campfires are also used in Indigenous communities for healing ceremonies and learning opportunities. The Anishnabeg, native to Turtle Island, concentrated around the Great Lakes, use fires for healing ceremonies and as a gathering place for workshops. Fires hold a space to meet as a community and learn traditional knowledge (5). For example, one workshop offered by Anishnabeg Outreach, a not-for-profit organization with locations in different parts of Ontario, is a “spirit building workshop” that focuses on creating resilience for you and your family as well as “growing the ability to deal with change, stresses and uncertainties in life” (5). The workshop begins with circle questions and is intended to “light the fire within you” (5). The traditional knowledge learned around the fire includes learning a “deep sense of self and belonging and ways to integrate Indigenous culture into your daily life” (5).
If one were to ban or take away campfire use, it could be a potential barrier to the Anishanabeg as they wouldn’t be able to have healing and spiritual experiences around the fire. Fires are also used as a gathering place for Anishnaabe families and a ban on fires would take that opportunity away.
“One memory I have around the campfire, was from a Grade 9 trip to Camp Walden (a camp in Southern Ontario) that I took with my arts high school. While I was there, I connected with several dance majors, and I remember one night we sang songs by the fire. I remember it as such a beautiful experience of bonding, and I was friends with these people for the rest of my high school career. If it wasn’t for that campfire, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sing with each other”
Given that there are so many benefits to campfires maybe it is worthwhile to look at potential solutions to the negative impacts of fires.
When I went camping as a child there were regulations in place to deal with campfire use in parks – regulating the time they could be used and placing a ban on campfires after a certain time at night. This dealt with noise pollution and air quality at night. These regulations still exist and offer a partial solution to visitor complaints.
In response to the invasive species problem, one solution could be to only allow firewood to be bought from the local area or park itself, while ensuring that the wood is sourced locally from healthy trees. However, this may create an economic barrier to some, who planned on taking wood from crown land, rather than purchasing it.
Park Operators can also offer an alternative to burning wood. Propane Rings available at a rental price from the park could be a viable alternative. They consist of a metal bowl, lava rocks, and a connection for a propane tank that acts as the fuel for the fire. They provide both a gathering place and a place to cook food. Group campfires could be an option if they are housed in a specific part of the park so that noise pollution and campfire smoke would be isolated to that area. This could help meet the needs of neighbours and campers that worry about noise and pollution. However, it would be important to take into account the level of comfort zone that certain people would have with sharing the fire and cooking with others.
Park Leaders could also provide education on campfires – looking at ensuring people are respectful to other campers, looking at the pros and cons of campfires and keeping them mindful of the air pollution caused by fires that can lead to climate and health impacts.
After a quick look, it looks like campfires have many positive impacts and uses, from building communities, providing a space for connection, de-stressing and relaxing, and providing a space for Indigenous workshops and healing ceremonies. Whether or not these benefits outweigh the negative impacts to human health and the environment seems more like something to be decided by each individual that visits an overnight camping site. Maybe, as park leaders, we can only try to mitigate the negative impacts by providing solutions that ensure that visitors can enjoy campfires in parks with a clearer conscience and a healthier body.
Call to Action
What do you think? Do the positive outcomes of campfires outweigh the negative outcomes? How have campfires been treated in your park? Do you have an experience with campfires in parks? Please leave a comment below.
1) Dunbar, Robin I. M. “How Conversations around Campfires Came to Be.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 30 Sept. 2014, https://www.pnas.org/content/111/39/14013.full. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021
2) Zackal, Justin. “SRU Professors Spark Conversation about Campfire Day.” Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock University, 2 Aug. 2019, http://www.sru.edu/news/080219b. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021
3) “Buy local, Burn Local: Play your Part.” Invasive Species Council of BC, Invasive Species Council of BC, https://bcinvasives.ca/play-your-part/buy-local-burn-local/#:~:text=Two%20examples%20of%20introduced%20insects,established%20and%20damage%20local%20trees Accessed 3 Feb. 2022
4) “Emerald Ash Borer.” Government of Canada, Natural Resources Canada, 13 July 2021, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests/wildland-fires-insects-disturbances/top-forest-insects-and-diseases-canada/emerald-ash-borer/13377. Accessed 3 Feb. 2022
5) “Wellness and Healing.” Anishnabeg Outreach, 2021, https://aocan.org/wellness-and-healing/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021
6) “Wood Smoke and Your Health.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/burnwise/wood-smoke-and-your-health#health Accessed 2 Mar. 2022
Gypsy Moth Photo sourced from “Creative Commons”