Up In Smoke!

By Rick Braschler

Camp fire—two words that initiate almost a physiological response that causes mouths to water, faces to smile, ears to listen, and palms to sweat while dreaming of s’mores, smoke, singing, and laughter. However, the same two words can also bring about an opposite reaction, when fires at camp may bring about terror, loss, or destruction. This article will focus on how camp leaders can effectively reduce the latter, while enjoying more of the former, thus producing s’more-covered smiles, rather than soot-faced frowns.

Fire is created by joining three elements: oxygen, fuel, and heat. Fuel can obviously be flammable liquids, but can also include leaves, wood, clothing, and basically anything that can burn. Heat can include spark ignitors, such as flames or electricity, but also include some chemical sources as well. If none of these elements is missing, fire simply cannot start, or possibly continue. The challenge with controlling unwanted fires in a camp setting is that numerous sources of both fuels and heat are present on both an intentional as well as an unintentional basis. Let’s consider five common sources:

  • Grilling
  • Batteries
  • Chlorine
  • Fireworks
  • Leaf burning.

Ah, the smell of grilled burgers drifting through the cabins after a long day of activities. The very presence of a grill not only ensures super-happy campers, but presents two very different fire threats. The first threat comes from grills located under low overhangs so rainy weather does not dampen the dinner plan. Over time, heat and grease—serving as the fuel and heat—reach the proper level to create fire on an overhang. Therefore, it is wise to locate grills away from porches or low overhangs, and if cover is needed, make sure it has adequate height and ventilation.

The second grill-fire threat stems from the desire to get that good, old charcoal-grill taste. At the end of the meal, camp staff members exit the dining hall for the next series of activities, while the kitchen staff cleans up and begins preparations for the next meal. Meanwhile, the charcoal grill sits out back unattended, but still in a safe condition due to the fire-box design. However, before the next meal, the ashes must be discarded to make room for fresh charcoal. Some staff members are clueless to the existence of hot embers in the ashes, and thus cast the ashes into grass or leaf areas, causing a fire. Other staff members, while aware of the hot embers, discard the ashes in the middle of a gravel or dirt parking area or field, unaware that wind may blow the embers to a nearby fuel source (grass, twigs, leaves, etc.). It would be wise to have a charcoal-dumping area with adequate containment and wind-control to reduce these fire threats.

By their very nature and purpose, batteries serve as an ignition source but typically are not a threat as it is difficult to connect both the negative and positive terminals with a fuel source. While the AA, AAA, C, and D batteries are a lower threat given the proximity of their terminals, the 9-volt battery is a different story.

Camp office-storage areas are not the best environment for organizational success: multiple users, high turnover, hurried activities, and a host of materials mixed together in a confined area. Such is the case with 9V batteries getting mixed with numerous other items, such as steel wool, paper clips, or non-coated wires. Should the 9V positive and negative terminal ends—located on the same end of the battery—come into contact with a metal object, sparks can fly. It is always wise to keep the plastic terminal covers over the positive and negative ends during storage, and do not store batteries—especially 9V—in junk drawers.

With chlorine, thoughts generally focus on the chemical-exposure aspect and inhalation. However, chlorine has a secret side that can leave a pool shed or maintenance building in a blaze. Oftentimes, when I’m conducting camp-site evaluations, I see chlorine stored on the same shelf as other camp chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid, lighter fluid, dish soap, paint, motor oil, or transmission fluid, to name a few. Using these containers may cause further spillage onto the shelf surface when restocking. When motor oil or transmission fluid spillage transfers onto the shelf surface, then comes into contact with chlorine liquid or granules, the chemical result creates fire. Once ignited, other flammable chemicals aid in escalating the blaze. It is wise to always store chlorine liquids or granules in closed containers and be completely separate from other chemicals, especially motor oils.

Duh, right? Fireworks are flammable, so go figure. However, while staff members are typically on full alert during organized fireworks displays with spotters and available water for fire suppression, there is an after-effect that often reveals itself once the camp has fallen asleep. Many fireworks displays are contained in cardboard, box-like launching stations. After the box is used, it is set aside for more displays. At the end of the fireworks show, the boxes are often excessively watered down with a hose, then either put in the trash or stored somewhere on camp property until the next trash collection. Despite the watering-down process, these large box units can still harbor hot embers deep in the box. These hot embers expedite the drying process; then, once the cardboard dries out thoroughly, the box ignites. Anything close by that can burn is consumed, including trailer wood decking, storage sheds, grass, fencing, trash bins, and even nearby buildings. It is wise to fully water the boxes both inside and out, then store the firework remains in a non-combustible area, such as a dirt or gravel parking lot or field overnight before sending them to the trash pile.

Leaf Burning
The majority of camp properties in the country are located in forest settings that provide great scenery, shade, and hiking terrain. As such, the resulting blanket of leaves must be dealt with on an annual basis before camp can begin.  Most of the time, leaf burning turns out just like expected when you started the project. However, when summer staff members run into obstacles—such as damp leaves that won’t light—the creative juices begin to flow. In many cases, summer staff is successful in grabbing a proper fuel to help ignite the leaves and get them on their way. Fuels that possess a low flashpoint, such as tiki torch fluid, lighter fluid, or kerosene, are recommended choices if approved for that area. However, unknowing staff members can often grab the wrong fuel—gasoline—and end up with an unintended BANG! Gasoline has a high flashpoint with a rather abrupt explosion relative to the amount of fuel used. This explosion can often propel embers to unwanted areas, as well as burning eyebrows on nearby onlookers. To make matters worse, the fire can track the gas trail caused by the dripping container and jump to any part of a staff member who has gas spillage on clothes or hands. It is wise to train all summer staff on proper fire-starting methods, in particular, to never use regular gasoline for ANY fire starting in camp. You might even label the gas cans with a sticker, noting “NOT a fire starter!”

Grills, batteries, chlorine, fireworks, and leaves are simply part of the day-to-day life of a camp, and without them, some of the excitement of camp may be lost—no burgers, flashlights, pools, fireworks, and, well, trees! Even with good intent and hard work, staff members can unknowingly or unintentionally turn a fun camp experience into an inferno. By inserting some of this know-how into the staff training, the smoke you smell might just be from what you expected: ‘s’mores and dogs! As it should be.

Rick Braschler is the Director of Risk Management for Kanakuk Kamps in Branson, Mo., a Senior Risk Consultant in Youth Protection, and an expert in camp risk and safety management. Reach him at rick@kanakuk.com or (417) 266-3337.  For more information about Rick, visit www.camphow.comorwww.kanakukchildprotection.org.