By now it shouldn’t be a secret that every summer, the onset of wildfire season brings with it a ban on campfires and open-flame cooking. Yet each summer, the local social media pages are abuzz with folks looking for clarification on what they can and can’t do when it comes to outdoor cooking. While Cal Fire implements a seasonal ban for all outdoor burning, it does not pertain to campfires or grilling.
“Banning campfires and charcoal barbecues is a decision made by local districts,” said Truckee Fire Chief Bill Seline. “Currently, all of the local fire districts in our area that I know of ban campfires and charcoal barbecues during the Cal Fire burn ban time period, and have for years now.”
When local campfire bans throughout the region go into effect, as they now are, also prohibited is the use of any organic fuel-powered outdoor cooking equipment. This includes charcoal grills (including ceramic models such as the Big Green Egg), wood-powered smokers, and things like mesquite wood shavings that give an extra flavor boost to your grilled foods. Grills and fire pits powered by propane and natural gas, as well as pellet-driven devices, are still permitted.
“The problem with charcoal is the hot coals that are often left after grilling,” Seline explained. “In many cases, we find that people like to clean up their grills by dumping out their ashes. The proper way to do this is to put the ashes in a steel container. Unfortunately, some people are not aware or are lazy or in a hurry, and the ashes end up in a pile in the backyard or even in some cases a paper bag.”
Pellet machines, however, burn all the material to a fine dust which doesn’t retain heat, thus making them a safer option.
“The danger is that these ashes can stay hot for days,” Seline said of remnants left behind by charcoal. “All it takes is a drop in humidity, a rise in temperatures, and a bit of wind to start a fire.”
It is a scenario, Seline noted, that is all-too common in mountain fire districts each summer and the reason why there has been consistent implementation of gas-only messages and ordinances.
“Depending on the level of fire restrictions, even natural gas and propane gas grills can be prohibited,” said Jennifer Donohue, fire marshal for North Lake Tahoe Fire Prevention District. “Late last year, during the Caldor event, all open flame devices were prohibited.”
Open-flame devices such as tiki torches and all fireworks, including sparklers and firecrackers, are illegal in California year-round.
During red flag warning days, even propane or natural gas grills, smokers, and fire pits are banned.
“We typically have about 10 red flag events a year, and these are the days a fire would quickly get out of control beyond our ability to control it,” said Truckee’s Seline, adding that last year saw a total of 15 red flag days.
From 2016 through 2018, before the implementation of its 2019 campfire ban, Truckee Fire responded to 11,12, and 15 fires, respectively. “After the first year, we only had three escapes,” Seline said. “We believe the ban worked.”
While Donohue has not witnessed any recent instances of fires that were the result of escaped campfires or grilling gone wrong during her tenure as NLTFPD fire marshal, it is something she has seen plenty of times before.
“I previously worked for 18 years for another local fire department, and I can assure you that I investigated numerous barbecue/grilling/improperly-disposed-of-charcoal-caused fires,” she wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink. “That department did not impose any such restrictions; therefore, anecdotally, an assumption could be made that restrictions are effective.”
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that locally enacted burn bans have not applied to established campgrounds, which typically have designated campfire rings. A new bill before the California Senate, however, is seeking to change that.
“[SB 1012 is] bipartisan legislation introduced this year to require state parks to follow and enforce local fire restrictions,” North Tahoe Fire Protection District public information officer Erin Holland told Moonshine. “Currently, U.S. Forest Service and California State Parks are not required to follow local fire restrictions, which can increase confusion on the issue.”
The new legislation would require that units of the state park system follow and enforce rules pertaining to open fires that are at least as restrictive as the rules adopted by a local fire department or a fire protection district. If a unit of the state park system is located within the boundaries of both a local fire department and a fire protection district, the unit shall follow and enforce the open fire rules that are the more restrictive of the two. As of press time, the bill was still going through the senate process.