(CNN) — A campfire is a place where people gather around for warmth and laughter, but if precautions aren’t taken, it can quickly become dangerous.
As wildfires rage across the West Coast of the United States, fire safety in the great outdoors is more important than ever.
There are ways, however, to greatly reduce fire risk. Tomas Gonzalez, temporary Pacific Southwest regional fire program coordinator for the USDA Forest Service, explains how to safely enjoy a campfire.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: When someone decides they want to start a campfire, what is the first step they should take?
Tomas Gonzalez: See if there are fire restrictions in the area. Sometimes no fire is allowed at all right now. Here in California, we’ve progressively made our fire restrictions stricter as the season has progressed and we’ve had more fires.
Also, find out where the fires are allowed in your National Forest, whether they’re allowed in developed campgrounds or in dispersed camping, which is camping in an undeveloped area.
Most National Forests have a website or Facebook page with the information.
CNN: If the National Forest says it’s OK to have a fire, what is the first step to safely start the fire?
Gonzalez: It’s always a good idea to have the fire in a ring of rocks. Also use the metal ring area if it’s in a developed campground to keep the sparks from flying out.
CNN: When it’s time to put out the fire, what are the steps for that?
Gonzalez: We like to say, “drown, stir, feel, then stir some more if it’s hot.” Check the fire area with the back of your hand just to make sure that there is no heat left to rekindle after you’ve exited the area. If you don’t, it can be a real problem.
Most people don’t realize that all it takes is a little bit of wind to start the fire back up again.
CNN: What’s a common mistake campers make when it comes to fire safety?
Gonzalez: There is a lack of awareness of the dangers of fires. A common mistake people make is not fully extinguishing their fires before they leave.
But I also think there is a lot of blatant disregard. They think it’s a rite of passage so people start fires and either don’t know they can’t at that time, or they just don’t care.
CNN: Why is fire safety so important, especially in California, one of the states you oversee?
Gonzalez: Due to the pandemic, we’ve seen our demographics have changed and more first-time visitors are coming. Disneyland is closed and all these other venues that people would go to are not available now.
It’s a massive number of people and we don’t want to see anybody get hurt. The wildfires are unprecedented, and I don’t think these fires are going to get put out anytime soon.
It’s really going to take a weather event such as snow or rain to get a handle on a lot of these.