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SCA and Faire Campsite and Fire Safety


shepards around a fire

A warm and friendly campfire
is also a source of danger.
Anunciation to the Shepherds
by Jean Bourdichon 1503-08

Have a plan to play safe

By Gael Stirler, owner of Renstore.com

(August, 2010)

I have been camping at Renaissance Faires and SCA events for over 20 years. On two separate occasions I have seen tents burn down, I've had several close calls, and I've heard of many others. I've picked up a lot of good advice on how to stay safe around camp and figured some things out for myself. In this article I'm not going to cover how to build a fire or how to bury and drown a campfire because you can find plenty of websites that will give that information. I want to share some of the safety tips you won't find in the usual places.

We have a learned through experience that re-enactment has its own set of dangers that other campers just don't worry about. For instance, long dresses and cloaks can catch fire if you are standing too close to an open fire pit. Once I was sorting laundry after a camping event and found that my Irish Dress was partially burned from hem to knee in the center of the back. Not scorched, burned! I had know idea that at some time during the event my dress had caught on fire and went out by itself. Perhaps I sat on a damp log or threw a cloak around me that smothered the flames. Whatever I did, I am grateful. But when I saw the burned dress, I was really shaken. I knew I must have been alone or someone would have told me, and it was just dumb luck I wasn't harmed.

I've had many other experiences over the last 20 years of camping that have taught me to be more fire conscious. I've set the hem of my apron on fire cooking over a shallow firepit. I've got holes in my camp chairs and dresses from embers popping out of the campfire. I've melted a patch of rug with a tent heater and I even treated a drunk who tried to move a firepit with his bare hands. What I have learned is that most accidents could have been prevented with a little preparation and thoughtful behavior.

From the beginning, plan for fire safety.

Before you set up camp, determine if there is a prevailing breeze. If so, set up the main campfire downwind of the your sleeping tents and firewood. Clear all brush, pine needles, and leaves away from the campfire area to a distance of 5 feet. Don't put any rugs or hay within this fire break area. When building a campfire on the ground, dig a hole and build a ring of stones around it to prevent fire creep. Look up. Don't build your fire under tree branches. The embers can float up and catch them on fire.

If embers are your concern, a metal screen for your fire pit can make the fire safer and more pleasant to sit around, but it's only practical for small firepits. For larger ones, make sure that you use hardwood and that your wood is dry. Don't burn trash or boxes in the firepit because trash embers are very hot and can float down on a tent and set it on fire. Don't let children or young men poke at the fire with sticks and stir up waves of sparks. Medieval children were taught to respect fire from birth and ours should be as well.

We all know that we should have an escape plan for our homes, but few of us consider having one for our camp tent. Do you know how to get out of your tent quickly? Is the door of your tent facing the campfire? How would you get out if the fire was right in front of the door? Some people sleep with a knife at hand to cut a hole in the tent wall for escape. Some tents have more than one door. If your door ties shut, use only loose half-hitches that can be untied with one tug. If it zips, leave a 2 foot gap open so you can get out even in a panic. Everyone who sleeps in your tent should practice getting out quickly. If it is too difficult, consider just hanging a curtain over the door.

Speaking of weather, don't let your guard down in the rain. That can be the most dangerous time for fire, not because of lightning, but because of the dumb things people do when they are wet and cold. They use propane stoves as tent heaters, huddle too close to open flames, and hang wet clothing above tent heaters to dry them out. These are just accidents waiting to happen.

women cooking over fire
Long Dresses and fire
present unique hazards for re-enactors.

Cooking Safely

Elevating the fire in a metal firepit or on a metal grill table not only prevents wildfires but makes cooking easier. We own a metal fire pit three feet in diameter so we can build very large fires in it, then use the coals for cooking. We also have a grill table large enough to hold four Dutch ovens. My husband cut the point off a spade to make a flat-nosed shovel. He uses it to move coals from the pit to the grill table. It is also handy for putting out small fires that occur when embers pop.

Brushing your hem over the coals probably won't cause a flare-up, but it can burn holes in clothes you love. Don't wear good clothes around fire, especially when you are cooking. Wear natural fiber clothing—not just because it is period—but because it has natural fire retardant properties. That doesn't mean it is fireproof, just that it takes a lot more heat to catch and stay on fire. If you have to tend a low fire, hitch up your dress in the front. Don't wear dresses with long hanging sleeves or scarves with long fringe. Put volunteers to work far away from the fire if they are wearing inappropriate work attire.

When setting up your propane camp stoves, make sure that the legs are on solid ground or, if it is a tabletop model, that the table is stable. It is very annoying to put a large pot of water on the stove and have one leg sink into the ground.

While fire is the greatest danger, it certainly isn't the only way to get burned. Other sources of danger in the camp kitchen are boiling water, hot pans, and grease fires. When camping, you may be cooking for a large crew with large cast iron pans that are heavier than normal. If it is too heavy, be prepared to have someone strong help you if you need to pour hot water into a camp sink. When that's not an option, use a smaller pan as a dipper to transfer the water rather than risking a serious scalding. Remind others to behave safely around boiling water, too.

Use large leather fireplace gloves to protect your hands when working around the fire. Have plenty of hot pads laying near or hanging by your propane camp stove. The most common way people burn themselves is using a bare hand to grab a hot pan handle or lift the lid off a kettle. It is just as important to NEVER use a wet hot pad. It can transfer more heat that grabbing a hot pan with your bare hands.

Grease fires are especially dangerous in or near a tent. Never throw water on a grease fire because it can splash the fire onto you or the tent walls. Calmly cover the fire with a lid. It will take a few minutes to suffocate the fire, so no peeking until the lid cools down. Only use fire extinguishers rated for grease on kitchen fires.

medium size fire extinguisher
Fire Extinguisher
Get one that is rated for wood, fabric
and grease and large
enough for your needs.

Lanterns and Candles

We all know that we should never leave a candle unattended but I see it done all the time. If it is in a glass enclosure it is much safer than a bare flame. But the wind can blow other things into the flame that can catch fire so always be vigilant. With so many flameless alternatives there is really no excuse for leaving a lighted candle inside a tent.

Lanterns and candelabras shed light best when elevated above our heads but they can be dangerous if not hung properly. Hang propane lanterns no closer than 3 feet from the roof. This means that lanterns should not be hung in most nylon tents. The heat rising from a lantern can melt a nylon tent and set a canvas tent on fire. It can also melt through nylon rope bringing the heavy lantern crashing down. The only safe way to hang a lantern is with a metal chain or hook. We use long wrought-iron, potted plant hooks attached to our wooden, upright tent poles. Gasoline, kerosene, or oil lamps should never be filled while lit. Wait for them to cool down so the vapors are not as volatile before filling. Store lantern fuel in a safe place away from fires and children. Never store lantern fuel in anything but its original packaging. In case of an accidental poisoning, you'll find the antidote printed on the bottle.

Fire Extinguishers

Have a fire extinguisher for each tent in your area. Throw the box it came in away. An extinguisher in a cardboard box might as well be a rock in the event of a fire. Put one extinguisher in front of each tent. Don't put it inside the tent. Remember you want people to get out of the their tent if it is on fire, not try to fight it from the inside.

Read the labels on the fire extinguishers around your camp to find out it is for wood and fabric, gasoline, or grease. If you are camping with others, bring your own extinguisher and get to know what kinds they have around, as well. In the event of a fire you should already know where the nearest extinguisher is and what kind of fire it can handle. You won't have time or enough light to read the label when it is needed. In the event of a fire, remember to "P.A.S.S". That stands for PULL, AIM, SQUEEZE, and SWEEP. Stand upwind of the fire 8 to 10 feet. Pull the pin. Aim the nozzle at the BASE of the fire. Squeeze the handle and sweep back and forth. If it is a fire caused by propane, extinguish ALL fires in the area in case the propane is still leaking and seeking another source of ignition. Once the fire is extinguished, use the shovel to move the debris around and look for hot spots that could flare up again. If you want to learn more about the different kinds of extinguishers and how to use them, there are many helpful videos on the Internet.


Related Story Cooking on the Campfire: Leaving your stove and oven behind.

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