Of all the words in this article, Mike Starkovich of the U.S. Forest Service hopes you remember these:

Drown it, stir it, touch it. 

“That’s our rule when you’re finished with a campfire,” said Starkovich, a 34-year firefighting veteran who has worked in six districts in Washington state. He has spent the past 12 years serving the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in the Cle Elum Ranger District, where he serves as district fire management officer.

Starkovich says understanding how to correctly extinguish a campfire is vital knowledge for anyone who camps in campgrounds, dispersed campsites (undesignated but legal) or the backcountry. 

In Washington, more than 1,772 wildfires occurred in 2021, he said. Annually, around 60% of wildfires in the Okanogan-Wenatchee are human-caused. Curtailing campfire gaffes by forest visitors is one of Starkovich’s prime objectives.

Track wildfires, air pollution and drought conditions throughout Washington, Oregon and British Columbia

“With the exception of an arsonist, nobody really means to start a wildfire,” he said. “There’s a lot of remorse and regret when one happens. The vast majority of people are good, honest people, and they really don’t mean to cause a problem.

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“If they will just take some very basic steps, they don’t have to live with that.”

At a campground, those steps include being equipped with a bucket (to drown a fire), a shovel (to stir its remnants) and a sense of duty (to use your hand to feel for signs of lingering heat).

“When you’re ready to leave your campsite, put a couple of good buckets of water on it so the hot rocks are steaming,” Starkovich said. “Use your shovel to mix dirt with the embers. And don’t leave it until you can touch it with your bare hand. Drown it, stir it, feel it. If you can touch it with your bare hand, it’s probably cool enough to leave.”

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Years ago, when patrolling in the Naches District, Starkovich observed a group making an unwise decision when a cloudburst hit their campsite.

“It was wet enough that you wanted to get in your car, but you could tell it wasn’t going to last very long,” he said. “This group had a campfire that was roaring pretty well, but they were getting ready to leave. Even when it’s raining, you’re not supposed to leave your campfire unattended.”

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He sprung to ask the group about the unattended campfire and quickly realized it was a troop of Boy Scouts.  

“Before I could get another word out or the scoutmaster could say anything, his scouts turned on him,” Starkovich said. “‘We told you Mr. So-and-So. You can’t do that.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, boy. Now he’s in hot water.’

“His scouts knew better. Kids get the message early in life.”

What causes people to make poor judgment calls when dealing with fire? 

“I’d probably be a millionaire if I could answer that,” Starkovich said. “People get used to taking shortcuts, and they’re used to getting away with them. So they’re used to being lucky rather than good.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ve always left my campfire and I’ve never had a problem with it before,’” Starkovich said. “Then the wind kicks up and embers fly, or a piece of paper in the campfire catches a flame and blows out. Things can change in a hurry.”

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Beyond properly extinguishing your embers, Starkovich offered a few more fire-management tips:

“If it’s windy out, don’t light a fire,” he said. “No matter how badly you want that fire, if it’s windy, embers could be blown somewhere. If you can see a flag blowing straight out, that’s probably a good indicator not to light a fire.”

Prudently choosing where to start a fire is important, too.

“Use good judgment and don’t light a fire close to burnable vegetation or overhanging branches,” Starkovich said. “Always have a bucket with you with water in it and have a shovel-type tool nearby so you can throw dirt on the fire if it gets outside your fire ring.”

And there’s no need to have the biggest fire in the park.  

“Never build a bigger fire than you need. If you’re just enjoying the ambience, a small fire is going to give you the same ambience as a big fire. It burns a lot less wood and it throws off just as much heat. It’s probably better heat, because you can get close to it,” Starkovich said. “If you’re cooking with it, a small fire can produce the glowing embers you need for cooking. A small fire burns down quicker and you can start cooking on it sooner. And smaller fires mean your wood lasts longer.”

Starkovich endorses the use of gas-powered campfire units, which are typically permitted in campgrounds on occasions when fire restrictions are in place.

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“Those are a wonderful alternative,” he said. “You still get the ambience of the campfire, and you don’t have to dodge smoke the whole night. Lots of them have pumice rocks on top to generate heat. It doesn’t throw any embers, and when it’s windy or it’s time to call it a night, you just shut off the gas valve and your fire is out.”

When extinguishing wood fires, though, be liberal with use of water. Don’t have a bucket? Use your cooler as your water collector (after laying aside cooler items on a picnic table). 

“Don’t ever feel bad about putting extra water on a fire as long as it’s not a torturous climb down to a water source,” Starkovich said. “Drown it so you have no doubt in your mind that you put it out.”

Make a proper fire-extinction plan part of your camping routine.

“Don’t take a shortcut with campfire safety,” he said. “Follow that basic drown-it, stir-it, feel-it routine. Make sure you do it yourself. Keep it small. Enjoy your fire.”

Drown it. Stir it. Feel it. Every time.