Campfires can be a wonderful way of bringing a bushwalking group together to keep warm and cook food on, but it’s impossible to have a fire without disturbing the local envirnment.
More and more natural areas are been decalred 'fuel stove only areas' to protect the local ecosystems. This means that you are not allowed to light a campfire, but can cook on a portable stove.
Campfires leave a scar behind on the earth, and the scar can take considerable time to disappear depending on the habitat. Lighting a fire involves complete removal of firewood that may provide valuable habitat for wildlife in that system (e.g. nesting birds, invertebrates). Fires also increase the risk of bushfire which not only can be fatal for humans and human infrastructure but wildlife too.
Think about the reasons for wanting to light a campfire. Is it for cooking? For a cup of tea? To provide light? Or simply to have a social gathering?
Stoves have improved immensely in the last couple of decades and produce boiling water far quicker than a campfire can. Lightweight stoves can be less than 150g (not including fuel) and can boil enough water for a few cups of tea in less than 2 minutes. Don’t leave a stove unattended, and make sure it’s fully out before going to bed. On shorter day walks, consider using a thermos or cold food that can be eaten cold.
LED lanterns are excellent sources of light and ideal for car camping trips. Again, they’re much more effective sources of light than a fire. On overnight bushwalking trips use head torches and lightweight solar powered lanterns for light. Alternatively, use candles, but make sure they are always attended and extinguished before going to bed.
There are strict rules about what is allowed and not allowed on total fire ban days.
DO NOT LIGHT A FIRE on total fire ban days.
In each state the relevant bushfire commissioner may decide to issue a Total Fire Ban when conditions become sufficiently dangerous. Generally, this is when conditions make difficult hard to contain a fire (i.e. sufficiently hot and windy) and fire risk to natural areas and human life become high. A decision to enforce a total fire ban is usually pubslished during the afternoon and is effective from midnight for 24 hours. If conditions get worse, a total fire ban may be issued on the actual day.
Check Fire Danger Ratings and Total Fire Bans on the states rural fire service website before the trip and know the risks and how to respond if caught in a bushfire.
Can I use portable gas stove during a total fire ban?
In Western Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland you can not use your bushwalking stove (on a bushwalk) during a Total Fire Ban.
Australian Capital Territory Generally, you cannot use portable stoves during a Total Fire Ban. They do say you can use a barbeque for cooking if the area around is clear of any flammable material for a distance of 3 metres, is under the control of an adult, and there’s a continues supply of water. However many parks and reserves will also be closed during a total fire ban.
South Australia Generally, you can not use a gas stove, except on a coastal foreshore. You still need the area clear of any flammable material for a distance of 4 metres, be under the control of an adult with an appropriate fire extinguisher.
Tasmania is the only state with a general exception for bushwalkers. In Tasmania, only LPG (Butane or Propane) cookers or stoves can be used providing that they are clear of any flammable material for a distance of 1 metre.
Some natural areas are fuel stove only areas, meaning that no campfires are allowed, and cooking must be done on fuel stoves instead.
Land managers designate fuel stove only areas to reduce bushfire risk, to prevent depletion of wood supplies and to protect natural values. This is true for most of the Tasmanian natural areas where peat fires can smoulder underground for months causing untold destruction.
These bans exist for good reasons, please honour them.
Check out what rules apply to the natural area before leaving on the walk.
If you are walking in an areas where fires are permitted and there are no fire bans in place then plan to minimise the impact your fire has.
How to have a minimal impact campfire
If, after all this, the group still decides to have a campfire, follow these tips to have minimal impact.
Selecting a fire location and collecting wood:
1. Choose a clear location where the wind will blow flames away from tents and vegetation. Remove all dry tinder.
2. Where possible, use existing fire scars. Never use a rock surface as it leaves behind a scar that doesn’t fade.
3. Don’t surround the fire with rocks: the rocks get damaged and/or can explode.
4. Don’t cut down live branches: use dead and fallen wood.
Maintaining the fire:
1. Never leave the fire unattended.
2. Keep the fire small.
3. Make sure there is enough water supplies to put out the fire at any stage.
Extinguishing the fire and leaving minimal trace:
1. Fires must be completely extinguished before leaving or going to bed. This means the fire must be completely cold and nothing left smouldering. The best way to put out a fire completely is to douse it with water.
2. Disperse any firewood back to where it was naturally found.
3. In wilderness areas, scatter all traces of the fire.
In all Australian states smoking is banned in public buildings and near their entrances, this includes huts on bushwalking tracks.
Smoking is banned in all NSW national parks and offenders are subject to on-the-spot fines. (Smoking is permitted in some commercially licenced areas in NSW national parks).
Bushwalking is a good opportunity to look at alternatives to smoking (e.g. e-cigarettes, nicotine patches, gum etc.). Have a chat with your doctor about a plan to quit smoking.
If you are in an area where you are allowed and you choose to smoke here are some tips to help reduce your impact on fellow walkers;
1) move downwind from the rest of the group,
2) use a small plastic box to carry out used cigarette butts and ash securely.
Remember that irresponsible disposal of cigarette butts on a total fire ban day is an offence, with heavy fines and jail sentences.
McClelland, Matt. Bushwalking and bushfires. Nature New South Wales, Vol. 57, No. 4, Summer 2013: 18-19
Bradstock, Ross Andrew, Jann Elizabeth Williams, and A. Malcolm Gill, eds.Flammable Australia: the fire regimes and biodiversity of a continent. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Abbott, Ian, and N. Burrows. “Aboriginal fire regimes in south-west Western Australia: evidence from historical documents.” Fire in ecosystems of south-west Western Australia: impacts and management. Symposium proceedings (Volume I), Perth, Australia, 16-18 April 2002.. Backhuys Publishers, 2003.
Is it safe to walk by Matt McClelland, article from BWA emagazine, December 2013
Should I postpone my walk by Matt McClelland, article from BWA emagazine, December 2014