Campfires: To Ban or Not to Ban?

The other day I listened to a phone-in talk show on CBC dealing with the question of campfire bans. Very topical, since the whole province can look out the window and see the results of careless fire usage, which caused about 50% of B. C.’s fires this year. The question was, “What can we do about it?” Our society needs to change its behaviour; do we need new laws, more regulations?
The Nature of Laws
In order to decide how to implement a change in how society works, it is first necessary to understand how laws work. Of course, some who called in thought it was merely a matter of making a law, enforcing it, and if it didn’t work, then upping the punishment. Sound familiar? I’m afraid this Old Testament sort of thinking is still prevalent in our whole justice system.
The fact is, the easiest law to enforce is one that most people in the society believe is fair and necessary. It is another fact that if you enact any law, a certain percentage of the population will view it as unfair or unnecessary or both, and require enforcement to make them obey. Good lawmaking strikes a balance between these two extremes.
The Offenders
There are three ways someone can start a fire.
1. Pure accident. My car once sprung a power steering fluid leak on a very hot day. When I stopped to investigate, a small pool of fluid under the car spontaneously combusted, creating a flame. I quickly drove the car off the flame, and no harm was done, but one can imagine a situation where a person caused a fire through that sort of accident and drove off without ever knowing it.
2. Ignorance. Many people engage in dangerous behaviour because they don’t realize the problem they might cause. This sort of conduct is the cause of most of the human-started fires we have: cigarettes, campfires, trash burning, industrial burning.
3. Defiance. There is a small part of the population who walk around with chips on their shoulders and delight in breaking the rules because it lets them feel powerful. Their action in throwing a cigarette butt out the window is an “up yours” gesture. They aren’t purposefully starting a fire. They’re just rebelling.
4. Of course, a few sick individuals start fires on purpose, but mental health issues are beyond the power of the Forest Service to solve.

What Do Average People Think?
We must remember that we are trying to change the behaviour of the whole population, here. One woman who called in told the story of camping during the ban and noticing another camper with a fire. When reminded of the ban, the offenders became angry. They had to be told three different times before they gave up and doused their fire.

Solving the Problem

This points to the problem of how people think in BC at the moment. Of all the campers in that campsite, only one group felt it important enough to correct the dangerous behaviour. So, with the above knowledge, what conclusion can we draw?

Well, the authoritarian solution is simply too expensive to police in general, and in the backcountry it’s impossible. Because it provokes the rebellious, such an approach could actually be counterproductive. So the “War on Forest Fire Starters” needs to go the way of the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs as a relic of an earlier stage in our society’s evolution.
Which brings us to the most effective solution, one that will affect the largest number of people with the greatest chance of success: having laws that are reasonable, supported by as much enforcement as we can reasonably afford. One of the CBC commentators asked if we should be starting the campfire ban immediately in May as a general practice. An astute caller reminded her how stupid the law would look if we had a rainy May, and how difficult it would be for park rangers to enforce the ban on cold, wet campers.

What we need are sensible laws and a public relations effort to rival the Smokey the Bear campaign. I hate to dump more responsibility on the schools, but our forests are an essential part of our society, and outdoor education training is essential to preserving our province. With so many of our people growing up in cities, we can no longer depend on parental and neighbourhood lessons. Present policies cutting back on field trips are definitely counterproductive in this area.

We need to make the public so aware of the dangers and results of poor fire control that when someone breaks the ban, twenty or thirty people from all over the campsite converge at the first sign of smoke, carrying buckets of water and firefighting tools.

To use on the fire, of course.

The most effective Parks staff are not policemen.  They are educators and helpers, giving people information about places to visit, efficient camping and hiking practices, wild animal information, and, yes, fire control.

The word I heard most in the CBC show was “they.” It was all, “They do this, they do that.” But it isn’t them. It’s us. We do these things, and we all need to learn to do better. An ounce of prevention saves many gallons of fire retardant and bulldozer fuel.

PS: You Think a Campfire Ban is a Problem?

Everyone has been evacuated from the area south of Francois Lake. However, the people who live out in that country are an independent lot. Some of the farmers and loggers have refused to leave their homes, staying to work on firebreaks with their bulldozers, tractors and pumps. In response to this defiance, the Forest Service has tried to refuse shipments of fuel and mechanics for their machines to cross the Francois Lake Ferry. After all, these people are defying a legal order to leave.

I wouldn’t want to be the one having to make that call.

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