Living Alaska: Life without a campfire
Sometimes we sat on wooden stumps, the tailgates of our pickup trucks or cheap polyester camping chairs. We’d situate seats in a circle and move from spot to spot, trying to avoid the moving cloud of smoke that plumed from the fire.
In those seats, I watched my grandpa stoke a fire in the rain with a cup of coffee in hand and my dad shared cooking lessons. Sometimes the people in the seats change, but the conversation and feelings of warmth and nostalgia are always the same.
Life without a campfire feels incomplete. And, Alaska’s expected to be in for a hot, dry summer — which means we’ll likely have to go without campfires for much of the coming months.
I guess I better get used to it because the burn bans — they’re coming.
Is it a primal thing or an Alaska thing?
Weeks back I sat across from a friend for a backyard fire. I made a comment about the comfort I felt from watching the split logs burn. He asked: “Why do you think we like fire so much? Is it primal or is it something else?”
I’ve thought about his question every time I’ve read a Facebook rant about how crappy someone thinks the burn ban is or decided against a camping trip because we wouldn’t be able to have a fire. I have a camp grill and it’s warm outside. I don’t need it. But, like any homegrown Alaskan, a surefire way to annoy me (to say the least) is to tell me what I can and cannot do — especially when it comes to how I use and experience the outdoors.
I understand the reasoning behind the decisions, but that doesn’t mean I like it. Campfires have been the centerpiece of many birthdays, and moments of impact in my life. It’s made tough conversations less stressful and brought old friends back into my life. Even my dogs seem to enjoy the peacefulness a crackling fire provides.
But do people around the U.S. have the same experience with fire as I do? Or is that fire craving magnified because I’m Alaskan?
It’s just as much a part of living here as eating fresh salmon or wearing XtraTuffs. Alaskans still depend on fire for survival and like humans have been doing for the last 1 million years, Alaskans use it as a tool in our day-to-day lives. Besides us, how many Americans can say the same thing?
Several studies in the last decade have looked into humans’ fire obsession.
In 2012, Live Science published an article about what draws humans to fire and cited information from several studies, including a University of California study by evolutionary anthropologist Daniel Fessler. Fessler’s conclusion was that many adults who had a fascination with fire often had “inadequate” experience with fire during their childhood or developmental years. It also stated that learning how to use campfires as a tool, is becoming less and less common in the Western world.
“Unlike a spider that inherently knows how to weave a web, humans don’t instinctively know how to produce and control fire. The ability must be learned during childhood. This may be because there was no universal method of fire building and control among our ancestors, who lived in diverse environments, and so there was no single method for evolution to ingrain in us,” the article stated.
But fire also has health benefits.
A 2014 University of Alabama study, led by anthropologist Christopher Lynn, found that watching fire lowers blood pressure, but also provides other benefits.
“Findings confirm that hearth and campfires induce relaxation as part of a multisensory, absorptive, and social experience,” Lynn hypothesized.
And boy, do I believe that.
But that’s not to say humans have mastered fire or use it responsibly. The National Interagency Fire Center says about 61, 913 wildfires nationally are caused by humans every year and burn more than 2.4 million acres of land. However, Alaska typically has the fewest with just over 300 human-caused fires, the agency reported online.
So, let’s keep it that way, Alaska. Burn responsibly and follow the rules, whether we like it or not.
Understanding the burn ban and campfire alternatives
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Climate Prediction Center 3-month climate outlook — for May, June and July — shows above average temperatures in Alaska, especially in the southern half of the state. (The West Coast and parts of the East Coast are also expected to see higher than normal temps.)
In the state’s most densely populated region, Southcentral, residents and outdoorsmen should expect to go mostly campfire free for much of the summer camping season. In a May outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center, the agency showed Southcentral Alaska, New Mexico and Hawaii as particularly vulnerable regions of the U.S.
And like any true Alaskan, I hate it, but I have a couple of ideas how to deal with it:
- If you’re like me, sitting around a crackling campfire is a soothing and grounding experience. If you need the serenity, luckily Netflix has your back. Unfortunately, “Fireplace for your Home” doesn’t have the campfire scent. But, guess what? You can buy the smell in candle form on Amazon.
- Although I’d prefer to cook everything over a fire, even at home, you can buy camp stoves for reasonable prices at most grocery stores, superstores, sporting good stores and online shopping sites. Your food won’t have the same smoky flavor, but I’ve found when you’re camping out in the woods, most food tastes better. And it’s better than granola bars for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Unless, fire conditions are really bad — grilling is almost always allowed.
The burn ban status can change daily. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has information online and an easy-to-use interactive map that shows what regions of the state are under burn bans. In the Municipality of Anchorage, it’s up to the Anchorage Fire Department.
Sometimes, the DNR fire status for Anchorage differs from the AFD status, but in the municipality AFD has the final say. Information from AFD can be found on their website.
You’ll have to check each day because fire restrictions in the municipality can change depending on the level of fire danger, but sometimes they’ll still allow fire pits with metal screens, and barbecues — although, those are supposed to be 10 feet away from any combustible surface. Anything with a flame should be attended by an adult.
Megan Edge is a lifelong Alaskan residing in West Anchorage. The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of KTVA. “Living Alaska” is a regular feature, appearing on KTVA.com, about experiencing the Last Frontier through the outdoors.