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As stay-at-home restrictions lift and the weather warms up, many predict "the entire state will light up with campfires," says Annette Newman, MS, RN, Community Outreach and Burn Disaster Coordinator at University of Utah Health Burn Center. "People have been in their homes for so long, they are going to go out and celebrate."
Although campfire safety might seem like a given, very few people actually know how to safely gather around a fire. Accidents involving the use of accelerants are common, and can become even more dangerous when intoxication is a factor—just ask Clinton Roundy.
Roundy grew up in Salt Lake City, a dedicated Boy Scout. He was never happier than when he was camping in rural Utah. Part of the camping experience was lighting the campfire. From age 14 onwards, he lit thousands of fires using gasoline, until one fateful rainy summer evening in 2000, at a birthday party gathering when he was 24.
He and some friends stood around a campfire, dousing it with a mix of two-cycle gasoline and motor oil from water bottles. Fire backtracked up his friend’s stream of liquid, forcing him to throw the bottle down.
Roundy stepped on the bottle’s lip to put out the fire. "Next thing I knew I was completely on fire. Clothes, pants, hair singed off," he recalls. He ran a few steps, dropped and rolled on the ground before someone smothered him with a blanket.
He was lucky—he was wearing fire-retardant clothing so the material didn’t melt into his skin.
Rather than the accelerant, it’s often the density of gas fumes, (which can settle on clothing) that is at the heart of the problem. "Gasoline vapors are heavier than air and tend to linger, especially if there is no breeze. Because gasoline has a low flash point it takes very little to cause the vapors to flash, something as simple as a spark landing on clothing can ignite like a fireball," says Newman.
"Because of the intensity of the fireball, it is difficult to extinguish and stop, drop and roll doesn’t necessarily work. You have to smother the flames with something like a blanket to cut off the fire’s oxygen supply."
One of her favorite former patients at the University of Utah Health Burn Center, she recalls, was a campfire burn survivor. The patient had, with another intoxicated adult, misjudged a jump to chest bump over a fire and he had landed in it. He didn’t realize until the next day when he woke up how significant the injury was, losing a crucial window immediately after the accident to seek treatment.
The fires themselves aren’t the only danger, especially when it comes to children. Firepit embers can retain their heat 12 hours after they have been put out. When children arrive with their parents at a campsite, they may sometimes trip on stones or the campfire ring and fall into a seemingly extinguished fire, only for their hands and sometimes face to press against still-hot coals.
"Think about how many times you use your hands in your life," says Newman. "The inability to move your fingers from scarring and surgeries can be really problematic."
A long-time bartender at Salt Lake City downtown fixture Urban Lounge, Roundy has since gone on to be a volunteer in supporting other burn survivors through Survivors Offering Assistance In Recovery (SOAR) and a counselor at the annual burn camp in Millcreek Canyon each fall.
It’s not only the burn survivor who suffers in the months of recovery that follow an injury. Roundy realized "how much I had put people through around me, what they had to go through with my pain."
His wound care and support team that summer were his family. "They pretty much had that summer off with me." That included his youngest brother, who "had to take care of me all summer long."
He urges anyone lighting a fire outdoors this summer to be cautious. "If you know what an accelerant does to a fire, you’re not using your best judgment to play with it," he says. "Everybody thinks a campfire burn is one of those things that never happens to them and it does all the time."
In the event of a campfire injury, follow the four Cs:
Cool it (keep a gallon of water near the fire)
Clean it (to remove any debris such as rocks and ash)
Cover it (anything clean will serve, including a sweater or blanket)
Call for help
To keep you and your loved ones safe around fires this summer, learn more about fire safety from the University of Utah Health Burn Center.