Avid campers and outdoors enthusiasts entered the Fourth of July holiday with new but not unexpected rules to follow. July 2 marked the start of fire restrictions on state-protected public and private lands. That means no campfires except in designated sites, no off-road ATV use, and limitations on other activities that pose a fire hazard in the woods. Recreationists can expect to see similar restrictions extended soon - perhaps by this weekend - to national forestlands.

The obvious reason is the early and sustained hot weather, which is drying out our forests and grasslands. Tinder-dry conditions are a clear risk to the wildlands in Grant County that are our playground, our heritage and our biggest asset.

Adding to the urgency this year is the spate of man-caused fires already reported this year. The Oregon Department of Forestry reported Monday that firefighters in the Central Oregon District have responded to 60 fires that burned some 1,020 acres. Of those fires, 18 were sparked by lightning - the usual suspect - but 42 were caused by humans. In particular, officials cited escaped campfires as a big and early culprit.

Carelessness and ignorance are the major factors in the latter trend. It may be hard to counteract the first, but the latter could be remedied if we all spread the word and heed the rules. Dowsing the campfires on state-protected lands will help. However, there is a lot of territory where campfires are still allowed, and that shouldn't be viewed as a license to burn without a care.

Fire officials even issued some simple tips. It's tempting to call this "Campfires for dummies," but the risks are too serious for levity. So here goes: Don't build it under a tree. Have a bucket of water, a shovel and an ax on hand. Clear the area around the fire of needles, twigs, grass and other debris. Don't dig a pit, which can lead to fires spreading underground through root systems. Use a rock ring to contain the fire. And, of course, never leave your campfire unattended.

Or better yet, skip the fire and use a battery-powered lantern.

Fire season won't last long, but the effects of a wildfire can be life-long. Each year there are folks who think the rules don't apply to them, and each year there are fires to refute that notion. With an early start to the fire season, let's work together to protect our forests.

- SC

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