Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Safety comes first when building a campfire

In his classic short story To Build a Fire, Jack London wrote of a man who picked the wrong spot for his campfire, a blunder that proved fatal. For most folks, poor fire-making skills will cost them only the respect of friends and family forced to eat cold, stiff marshmallows. But even that's a high price to pay when you're out trying to enjoy one of the great pleasures of Florida living, winter campfires. And there's no need for it, when all you need for a roaring blaze is dry wood, tinder, matches, a little instruction — and proper attention to safety.

The right spot

Campfires are like real estate — location, location, location is what's most important.

Most state parks and forests permit campfires in designated areas, i.e., fire pits, for good reason: to prevent the surrounding woods from catching on fire. These campfire circles are usually placed far from overhanging tree limbs and other vegetation that may ignite with an errant spark.

In campgrounds that don't have designated pits, yet still allow open fires, you can bring your own free-standing fireplace (available at most hardware stores from around $50). Or make your own by cutting the bottom off an old 50-gallon drum.

If your campsite does have a fire ring, clean out the old wood and ash before starting your fire. This will allow the air to circulate more freely beneath the wood. Make sure the ash is cold before shoveling it out or you will light the garbage can on fire.

Now that you have a clean canvas, it's time to create your masterpiece.

The right stuff

Most everybody starts with the same ingredients, wood and kindling. But what they do with it, now that's the art of the campfire.

Firewood falls into two basic categories, hardwood and softwood. Hardwoods, such as oak, are tougher to start, but burn longer. Coals of hardwoods make the best cooking fires. Softwoods, such as pine, burn faster and hotter. When dried and split into thin strips, pine makes a good fire starter. Ideally, you'd start with pine and switch to oak.

But first you have to get it lit. Small twigs, split pine, newspaper, cardboard, dried palmetto fronds, even Spanish moss, all work.

Space your smaller, thinner material at the center in a "teepee" shape with larger material around it. Make sure your structure has plenty of space for air to circulate. Once it's burning, gently fan or blow at the base of the fire until the larger material catches.

In a pinch, bring along some charcoal lighter fluid or fire paste to put on the wood to help it get going.

Right way, wrong way

Ask any veteran Boy Scout leader, and he will tell you there is no one "right way" to build a fire. It is the end result — smiling faces, warm bodies, no collateral damage — that counts.

But there is a wrong way to build a fire. Every year hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland are destroyed by wildfires. Before you make a campfire, check with park authorities to make sure one is allowed, given current conditions.

When wilderness camping, try to use an existing fire ring. On a barrier island, make your fire below the high-tide mark on the beach. Either way, practice good outdoor ethics and leave no trace that you've been there.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at

A few local spots that permit campfires:

In Pinellas, Fort De Soto County Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde, allows campfires if you bring your own fire ring. Contact the park (727) 893-9185 for details.

In Hillsborough, Hillsborough River State Park, 15402 U.S. 301 North, Thonotosassa, has fire rings at each of its campsites. Call (813) 987-6771

In Pasco, Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, 10500 Wilderness Park Boulevard, New Port Richey, has fire rings at each of its campsites. Call (727) 834-3247.

For more information, go to the Florida State Parks web site:

Safety comes first when building a campfire 01/09/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 9, 2011 7:32pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays late-night bullpen shuffle: Alvarado, Pruitt down; Kolarek up


    The Rays shuffled their bullpen again after Tuesday's game, sending down struggling LHP Jose Alvarado along with RHP Austin Pruitt to Triple-A Durham, and turning next to LHP Adam Kolarek, who will make his major-league debut at age 28,

  2. Tampa Bay Times honored for top investigative story in Gerald Loeb annual business awards


    The Tampa Bay Times was a co-winner in the investigative category for one of the highest honors in business journalism.

    Tampa Bay Times current and former staff writers William R. Levesque, Nathaniel Lash and Anthony Cormier were honored in the investigative category for their coverage of "Allegiant Air" in the 60th Anniversary Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism. 


  3. Pasco woman gives birth to child fathered by 11 year old, deputies say


    A Port Richey woman was arrested Tuesday, nearly three years after deputies say she gave birth to a child fathered by an 11-year-old boy.

    Marissa Mowry, 25, was arrested Tuesday on charges she sexually assaulted an 11-year-old and gave birth to his child. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
  4. For good of the Rays, Tim Beckham should embrace move to second

    The Heater

    PITTSBURGH — The acquisition of slick-fielding shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria said a lot of things, most notably that the Rays are serious about making in-season moves to bolster their chances to make the playoffs, with a reliever, or two, next on the shopping list.

    PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 27:  Tim Beckham #1 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates with teammates after scoring during the eighth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on June 27, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) 700011399
  5. St. Petersburg showdown: Kriseman faces Baker for first time tonight at the Rev. Louis Murphy Sr.'s church

    Local Government

    A standing-room-only crowd packed a Midtown church banquet hall Tuesday to witness the first face-off between Mayor Rick Kriseman and former mayor Rick Baker in what is a watershed mayoral contest in the city's history.

    Former Mayor Rick Baker, left, is challenging incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, right, to become St. Petersburg mayor.