Camping in the Era of Fire Bans

Here’s how to plan for camping trips without campfires.

By Matt Wastradowski April 4, 2023

Shortly before sunset in August 2015, I approached my campsite at Diamond Lake Campground in Southern Oregon. Under normal circumstances, I would have pitched my tent next to couples cooking dinner or families laughing around crackling campfires—but on that night, the typically bustling campground was nearly deserted, like the unsettling first few minutes of a zombie movie.

When I arrived, the Crescent Fire was burning the northernmost reaches of nearby Crater Lake National Park, but the sky above Diamond Lake was clear enough to enjoy an electric sunset. I was surprised to learn of a campfire ban that left me watching the colorful sky without a juicy hot dog or gooey s’more in hand. I had to settle for a few day-old doughnuts I’d planned on eating for breakfast the next day.

Wildfires and campfire bans felt new to me in 2015—but have become an unavoidable part of life for Oregonians in recent years. As climate change brings warmer, dryer weather to Oregon each summer, the potential for catastrophic wildfires can arrive by June and last well into September. And as the risk for wildfire increases, so does the possibility of fire restrictions at campgrounds across the state, including those in state parks, national forests, and other types of recreation areas.

As you make summer travel plans, it’s worth preparing for the possibility of a camping without the traditional centerpiece of that experience: the campfire. We talked with experts who provided insight on how fire bans are determined, what they look like in practice, and why campers should keep their reservations when restrictions are in effect. 

Understanding Fire Restrictions

Broadly speaking, campfire bans are instituted if the risk of wildfire is high—typically when some combination of dry, hot, and windy weather is in the forecast. But not all bans are created equal. 

David Ballenger, recreation lead for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Oregon and Washington, says that bans within the 15.7 million acres his agency oversees can become more or less restrictive, depending on fire danger. 

Campfires, candles, and charcoal briquettes are generally banned first. Stefanie Knowlton, a spokesperson with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, says that fuel sources with on-off switches or dials—such as butane- or propane-powered cookstoves—are often permitted at Oregon State Parks campgrounds during fire bans. Those types of cookstoves may be temporarily outlawed in some jurisdictions as danger heightens—but that is rare. And in all conditions, campers (even those using tents) can reserve full-hookup sites equipped with plug-ins for electric stoves and burners. 

Having Fun with No Fires

It takes planning and creativity when restrictions are in effect—but there is still fun to be had on fire-free nights. 

Ballenger swears by his propane-powered firepit—which creates a campfire-like ambience, is easier than wood in wet conditions, and doesn’t force campers to dodge smoke.

Knowlton suggests battery-powered lanterns for the picnic table and strands of fairy lights around the site—just make sure to turn them off before bed and not to damage trees. 

Your campground might also be a good for activities that can diminish the torment of fire bans such as stargazing, a pastime that benefits from a remote location's lack of light sources (including fires). Campgrounds like Lost Lake on Mount Hood sell star charts and other tools to assist amateur stargazers—and that the resort occasionally hosts an astronomer with a high-powered telescope for nighttime programs.

Finally, a friendly reminder: Campfire bans can take effect at any time and with little notice. So please remain respectful and courteous if a park ranger asks that you extinguish a fire. “They’re really working hard out there to make the camping experience the best and safest possible experience,” Knowlton says.

How to Check Fire Restrictions at Your Destination

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