Burning campfire on the beach on my kayak camping trip
Burning campfire on the beach on my kayak camping trip

Planning a bonfire? Here are some guidelines to help keep you safe

July 29, 2022

Campfires or bonfires can be a wonderful way to spend time with close friends and family, but it’s easy to forget the risks involved.

At Burn and Reconstructive Centers of America (BRCA), we see firsthand how burn injuries affect our patients and their families. Our multidisciplinary approach to burn injuries promotes the best possible outcomes for every patient treated by our nationwide network of burn, wound and reconstructive care providers. While we also do our best to educate online and in-person communities on the risks and treatments for burn injuries, preventing these injuries is our primary goal.

If you’re thinking about having an outdoor fire this summer, it’s important to learn safety guidelines and have a plan in case any injuries occur. Check with your local fire departments for rules and regulations for having a fire.

Bonfire safety guidelines:

  • Make sure you check the weather before building any campfire or bonfire—high winds can cause the fire to spread quickly.
  • Never build a campfire or bonfire within 25 feet of any structure, building or anything that can burn. Check with your local rules and regulations.
  • Whenever sitting around a campfire or bonfire, keep a bucket of water or a hose close by to help prevent the fire from spreading.
  • Never use accelerants on fires like alcohol, gasoline or lighter fluid.
  • Never burn anything with chemicals like aerosols, foam or paint—these items can release toxic fumes, explode or cause the fire to spread.
  • Never leave the fire unattended! There should always be at least one adult watching the fire to ensure it does not grow out of control or spread.
  • Keep all children and pets at least ten feet away from the fire to help prevent accidents and burns.
  • Never try to jump over the fire.
  • Be wary that loose-fitting clothing can catch fire. If they catch fire, stop, drop and roll away from the fire with your hands covering your face.
  • Never burn trash or discarded fireworks.
  • If around a body of water, do not jump into or push anyone into the water to put out the fire without making sure they can swim.

Keeping an eye on alcohol consumption while spending time around a fire is essential. If you or your friends and family are having a cocktail or two (or any adult beverage), it’s important to make sure everyone remains safe. Too much alcohol can cause slower reaction times, clumsy movements and risky or careless behavior, including attempting to jump over the fire, throw in fireworks or other inappropriate items.

Another thing to monitor is putting out your fire safely. According to the U.S. National Park Service, almost 85% of wildland fires are caused by humans who have left their campfires unattended, burning items like trash or debris, not using equipment properly, carelessly discarding cigarette butts and more intentional acts of arson. After you’ve let your fire burn out, several steps must be taken to ensure your fire is fully extinguished.

How to safely put out a campfire or bonfire:

  • Completely soak the campfire or bonfire with water.
  • Once you have fully covered the entire campfire area, mix the remaining ashes and embers with the soil or sand around it. You will need to scrape partially burned logs or sticks to ensure you cover every ember.
  • Stir the ashes and embers after they are completely covered—if everything isn’t wet, add more water!
  • Everything from the partially burned logs to the leftover coals should be cool to the touch at this point but check if there’s heat by holding your hand close to, but not touching, the coals. Even if it’s cool to the touch, wait a minute and add more water.
  • Check around for anything that could catch fire, like an ember or other possible sparks, to help prevent a fire.
  • IF THE FIRE RING/AREA IS TOO HOT TO TOUCH, IT IS TOO HOT TO LEAVE. Repeat the above steps until you are confident that the fire is out.
  • A common burn injury is someone stepping into a fire pit that isn’t completely put out. This can even occur the next day.

What to do if someone gets burned:

Anytime there is a fire, there is a risk of a burn injury. If someone gets burned, it’s crucial to treat the injury right away, and while some minor burns can be treated at home, many require medical intervention. There are four degrees of burn injuries that determine their severity:

First-degree thermal burn

First-degree, or superficial burns, are contained within the epidermis, and the nerve endings remain intact. There is typically no need to access a healthcare center, as these burns can heal within three to five days with minimal intervention.

Second-degree thermal burn

The thermal injury definition of a second-degree burn is one that partially damages the nerve endings and leaves thickness burns. These burns may appear more advanced, but they can heal within 10 to 15 days based on average healing times.

However, changes to your skin pigment may occur. Again, formal medical intervention is typically not required, but it is considered best practice to consult your doctor for an examination.

Third-degree thermal burn

Known as full-thickness burns, understanding what can cause a thermal burn of this nature can enable you to seek immediate medical attention to control the damage and minimize any risk to your health.

These burns cause significant scarring and require long healing times. It can take months for these burns to heal.

Fourth-degree thermal burn

Any article on this subject will tell you that these are the most severe burns involving subcutaneous fat, muscle and bone and require an immediate trip to a hospital. Treatment will focus on preserving the patient’s health before moving to debridement, dermal autografts and possibly even amputation.

If you sustain a fourth-degree thermal burn, permanent scarring and a long recovery path should be expected.

How to treat a burn injury

To treat first-degree burns at home:

  • Stop the burning process by rinsing the area with tepid or slightly warm water.
  • Wash the area with gentle soap and tepid water by dabbing the area with sterile gauze.
  • Cover the area in a cooling aloe gel or lotion.
  • Take a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory for pain and swelling.

We recommend using cooling compresses to cool the tissue briefly (less than ten minutes). Avoid ice packs when caring for first-degree burns to avoid the development of frostbite or further injuring the skin.

To treat second-degree burns at home:

  • Stop the burning process by briefly rinsing the area with tepid water.
  • Wash the area with gentle soap and tepid water by dabbing the area with sterile gauze.
  • Spread an antibiotic ointment or burn salve onto a sterile non-stick dressing and apply it to the area.
  • Wrap the area loosely with a gauze wrap so there is no pressure on the burn but enough that the dressing does not fall off.
  • Take a pain reliever as needed for pain.

Please be wary of blistering. Blistering is common with second-degree burns, and it is okay to leave them intact. If the blisters are already open, gently clean the area and keep the wound bed as sterile as possible by applying an antimicrobial or antibacterial ointment.

No matter how minor, third-degree burns are considered medical emergencies, and treatment should be sought immediately.


If you are concerned about the severity of your burn or the state of your burn wound, please get in touch with BRCA’s 24/7 Burn Information Services hotline at (855) 863-9595 to speak with a provider or to make an appointment.

For more information on thermal burns, please click here.