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Preventing injury around the campfire: Safety tips for summer campers

A couple warms themselves by a campfire. Once the fire is lit, keep it small, so things don't get out of control.


A couple warms themselves by a campfire. Once the fire is lit, keep it small, so things don't get out of control.

TORONTO - A sobering reminder of the fatal potential of burns came earlier this month when a 53-year-old woman died after falling into a firepit at a private campsite in central Alberta.

The Red Deer woman was camping with friends near Torrington, Alta., according to provincial RCMP.

She suffered third-degree burns to the majority of her body. Despite being airlifted to a local hospital and later transferred to Foothills Medical Centre — Calgary's largest hospital — she succumbed to her injuries, said RCMP Cpl. Sharon Franks.

Park officials, like Shawn Polley, want to remind campers that these types of tragedies are entirely preventable.

Tripping into firepits is a major hazard and children in particular need to be carefully watched, said Polley, manager of emergency services with Alberta Parks for the Kananaskis Region, which is a part of the Rockies nestled between Banff and Calgary.

Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children burn prevention website suggests drawing a "safety circle" about 1.2 metres (four feet) from the edge of the fire to provide kids with a clear boundary.

Adults can also be at risk of tripping, especially when alcohol is involved. A 2010 American study of hospital admissions due to burns from campfires and beach bonfires found alcohol was a factor in more than 60 per cent of adult injuries.

Care needs to be taken not only while the fire is burning — how you start and extinguish a fire are just as important to prevent injuries.

In parks, Polley advises using only designated fire pits. These may be harder to find in backcountry areas, so Polley suggests campers use backpack stoves since they create small contained fires with no impact on the environment.

Additionally, Polley says never use gasoline or lighter fluid to start a fire. "We've had burns caused by that," he says.

Once the fire is lit, keep it small, using three to four logs, and never rush to use additional logs that might fuel a larger fire than intended or necessary.

You'll want to have water nearby in case the fire gets out of control. Keep a large milk jug or bucket full of water near the fire.

"Four litres would be adequate to start," says Polley. "That would certainly take the intensity out of a fire."

In case of injury, Polley says campers should be equipped with information on whether the area is serviced by 911, what emergency services are nearby and whether there will be cell reception.

While waiting for help, the World Health Organization advises to provide first aid that will "cool the burn, prevent ongoing burning and prevent contamination" in its report on child injury prevention. Remove clothing from the area to prevent continued burning. Applying cold water to a burn will also help prevent ongoing burning and cool the area.

After you've enjoyed the campfire, make sure you put it out properly to prevent future injury.

Sick Kids burn prevention guidelines note campfires should be put out with water, not sand, since covering a fire will retain its heat, creating a potential hazard even into the next day.

Polley also advises to use water. "When you're done with the fire, soak it, stir it and soak it again," he advises. "Make sure all the coals have been extinguished."

This will also prevent the fire from escaping and spreading through a campsite, particularly an issue in dry areas where fires can spread rapidly endangering campers and wildlife alike.

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