Opinion: Front-Country Campfires are Smoky, Stinky Nuisances and We Should Look for Alternatives

Is it high time we took a look at our smoky drive-in campsites and rethought our obsession with burning wood?

Fresh air.

For me, fresh air is a big part of why I go camping. Air scented with sweet evergreens, crisp salt or simply nothing at all. It’s easy to find in the backcountry. But what about at popular drive-in provincial and national park campgrounds? Is it fresh there? Or is it often hazy and reeking of woodsmoke?

Is it time we rethink our obsession with wood-burning campfires?

Take popular Green Point Campground, in Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which offers 116 front-country campsites. Or Pancake Bay Provincial Park, north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, which has 325 front-country campsites. Or Alberta’s Banff National Park, which has more than 2,400 front-country campsites. And outside of wildfire season—which is virtually non-existent in Pacific Rim—almost everybody in these sites wants a wood-burning campfire.

That’s a big plume. And a big problem—because the particulate pollution caused by excessive campfire burning can lead to real health and comfort concerns.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have alternatives that allow marshmallow roasting to run side-by-side with healthy lungs and clear eyes.

But let’s first peer into the haze.

Campfire Concerns

Fires are synonymous with camping, and there’s a good bet you’re reading this op-ed with an increasing sense of incredulousness at my suggestion we cut back on this tradition. But I’m not the first to propose it. Your governments have been looking at the issue for years.

A 2010 study of Goldstream Provincial Park, near Victoria, British Columbia, determined that the ambient increase in particulate pollution caused by campfires in the park should be investigated by the Vancouver Island Health authority, and closed with: “A smoke management strategy for the Park may be warranted.”

But we know this, even if we don’t want to admit it. After all—don’t you hate white rabbits?

Don’t you lament clothing that reeks of woodsmoke even after two turns in the washing machine? A campground with smoke oozing between the trees like poison gas—particularly in the morning, when coffee fires smoulder and inversions push smoke to the ground? Playing musical chairs around a campfire, when wood is wet and burns are slow, and getting stuck in the smoky seat that basically ruins your night?

It’s more than a comfort issue, though. Fine particulate pollution—anything smaller than 10 microns—can get into your eyes, lungs and even your bloodstream. Campfire smoke creates particulates as small as 2.5 microns. This means itchy eyes and coughing for some and much worse for others.

In fact, your smouldering campfire may be keeping others away from the experience of camping altogether.

America’s National Park Service has warnings on Yosemite National Park’s website for people with respiratory conditions: “Emissions from many simultaneous campfires can degrade air quality on a local scale . . . creating local conditions that are potentially unhealthy for sensitive individuals.”

And as if we haven’t been through enough this past year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Center for Disease Control have issued a new woodfire-specific warning for survivors of, or those at risk for, Covid-19:

“Wood smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections, likely including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that cause COVID-19 . . . people who currently have or who are recovering from COVID-19 may be at an increased risk of health effects from exposure to wood smoke due to compromised heart and/or lung function related to COVID-19.”

Further to this point, Dr. Bohdan Pichurko, of the Cleveland Clinic, stated in an article on the hospital’s site: “If you have an underlying respiratory disease, inhaling smoke from wood, even briefly, can cause a chain of airway tightening that can land you in the emergency room. If you have asthma or COPD, take extra precautions… Sit as far from the fire as possible, and pay attention to which way the wind is blowing at all times.”

Yup—it seems our dedication to the campfire, en masse, might also reek of ableism.

Park Pollution

But how bad can campfire smoke actually get?

In the 2010 BC Parks study of Goldstream, it was found that during campfire season experts were able to record local instances of 2.5-micron particulate pollution (known as PM2.5) that exceeded provincial safety guidelines.This dropped back to acceptable levels when campfire season closed.

Think about this for a moment: your escape to nature might actually be putting you into a more polluted area than the one from which you escaped.

Said unscientifically: that’s nuts.

It gets worse. In British Columbia, open burning—which is primarily industrial and commercial, but also includes recreational fires—accounts for almost 30 per cent of the province’s overall measured PM2.5 air pollution, five per cent of the measured volatile organic compounds in the air (VOC) and roughly two per cent of the nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the air. (And that’s low—for comparison’s sake, New Brunswick’s wood burning produces 70 per cent of the province’s PM2.5.) Campfires represent a small percentage of it, but this study still noted that: “Education campaigns including signage at parks and campgrounds help raise awareness of air quality issues stemming from campfires.”

This is what clean, natural logs can do. When the wood is dirty—the problem compounds. Benzene, Acrolein, formaldehyde and more can be present in the waste wood we so often casually burn.

Provincially, parks generally follow the health authority guidelines on air quality—but I’ve yet to receive confirmation from any park authority that air quality testing has resulted in a campfire closure. In speaking with Parks Canada, they told me they’ve not formally done a study on air quality relating to campfires in their parks. Environment Canada indicated similar—no specific studies completed on health concerns relating to campfire smoke.

So, it would seem the real data is a bit lost in the haze.

Simple Solutions

So are we cancelling campfires?

Of course not.

There are a few solutions that could be implemented at busier campsites, which can lessen this problem. (Visiting a quiet campsite, or backcountry camping outside of wildfire season? It may not be a concern at all.)

For starters, while some park campgrounds have implemented campfire hours—often banned late night to early morning—we could take this further and create easy-breathing daytimes by limiting fires to off-peak hours. Also, since we already limit the size of legal campfires to a half-metre by a half-metre—what about the duration? Do campfires need burn all day?

If we want to make things really dynamic, busier campgrounds could implement rotating fire bans when low-pressure systems roll in; weather that forces campfire smoke to ground-level (as opposed to a high-pressure system, which allows smoke to coil into the sky).

Heck, what about fire-free zones in larger campgrounds? Would that really be so bad—a smoking and non-smoking section?

Or bring on the propane bowl. You want a fire? No worries—drop a bit of cash at MEC or Canadian Tire and you can roast wieners whenever you want. These units are often exempt from fire bans (check the regs, Ontario Parks says no, Parks Canada often says yes). Some provincial and national parks have already contracted rentable propane fires at their front-country campsites, at least seeming to acknowledge the issue with hundreds of campfires burning simultaneously.

Careful Consideration

Look—if you need a campfire, you can, regulations permitting, generally find a place to burn one. Look to a backcountry campsite, outside of fire season. Or search out campgrounds that allow beach fires, for example, to keep the smoke from infiltrating your neighbour’s tent. Or simply start with burning smaller, drier, hotter fires at dusk only, and for shorter amounts of time.

I’m not suggesting we lose the comforting crackle of combustion completely. I just ask that you take a good look at a busy front-country campground during campfire season—and a good smell—and think about what we’re doing to our lungs and to our forests… then ask if it’s really worth it.

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