Park Campfires: How and Why To Have Them
by Jutta Mason
An excerpt from Mason’s Cooking With Fire in Public Space, which details Mason’s experience with organizing, building and managing campfires and a community brick oven in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park. See the Introduction for more information.
The light and the warmth and smell of a campfire gather people in. A fire reminds people of when they were younger, perhaps of singing together and making music, or of telling campfire stories. A campfire is also one of the oldest ways to cook food. Almost everyone, no matter what country they were born in, seems to have a recollection of eating something delicious cooked over fire. People feel strongly about campfires. When we began to make campfires at our park, everything changed.
Why should park staff encourage campfires?
A campfire is such an old sign of human gathering that even today its power to signal community is undiminished. Wherever there is a campfire, one knows there are some people nearby. There also seems to be an ancient etiquette common to all cultures, that allows strangers to approach a fire. One can’t come right into the circle but one can draw near. At our park campfires there is sometimes a whole second tier, an outer circle of passersby standing back a little way, just watching the fire for a while.
A campfire is less private than a picnic barbecue. For that reason, a campfire in a park is very suggestive of what is possible among strangers. It may be that most people living in cities treasure their privacy and their distance from one another, but for almost everyone that privacy sometimes feels like loneliness. For some people, the occasion of a campfire may make the awareness of bonds that have been lost more acute, for instance if the fire evokes memories of village life in a different country. But at the same time, many people, when they draw near a campfire, seem to feel that they can talk a little to the strangers near them, perhaps about some overlapping memories of other campfires. Even when there is no talk, but rather, a reflective silence — people staring into the flames — the campfire seems to make a connection between those around it, although they may never have met before.
“There seems to be an ancient etiquette common to all cultures, that allows strangers to approach a fire. One can’t come right into the circle but one can draw near.”
Because a campfire in an ordinary city park is so unusual, when people come across such a fire they are surprised, amazed. They may feel that tonight, in the dark, they’ve seen something worth thinking about. It reminds them that their park, and perhaps their city, is beautiful. It may even make them boast, the way the young guys who use the basketball court beside our park’s fire circle boast: “nobody else has a park like this one, man, nobody.”
In our park we’ve had so many cooking fires that by now we have a year-long fire permit available on short notice to any “Friend of Dufferin Grove Park” (the park has lots of friends) who has received our fire training and made arrangements with the park staff. If your park has no such family-friendly arrangement (yet), but you’d like to try having a campfire, you can apply for a permit yourself.
How to get a campfire permit in your neighborhood park:
Make an appointment with the supervisor of your park (usually the “recreation supervisor” in charge of that area — get the phone number from your city councillor’s office) and tell her or him what you’re thinking about. If part of your reason for having the campfire is to enliven public space, you should say that. When you share the campfire cooking with some neighbours, your request is converted from a private-use permit into a park-volunteer permit: a very important distinction. If the supervisor agrees with your ideas about cooking in public space, ask her or him to help you get a campfire permit for the spot you’ve picked.
Who to apply to: You will have to contact the Permit Department (get the address from the park staff). Ask the recreation supervisor to give you a map of your park and mark the x for your proposed fire location, or sketch your own map. Write a letter to say you will have two buckets of water, two pails of sand, and a shovel. (No fire extinguisher is necessary.) Say there will be an official parks volunteer, trained by park staff, to attend to fire safety. Then fax your letter and the map to the city permit department. Put your phone number on your letter in case the permit department wants to confirm some things with you. You might like to ask for the permit on a couple of different dates in case the weather is bad or you want to try more than one campfire. More than one date can be on one permit. Make sure you give the recreation supervisor of your park copies of your map and your letter. That way the supervisor can keep an eye on the progress of your request.
“When you share the campfire cooking with some neighbours, your request is converted from a private-use permit into a park-volunteer permit: a very important distinction.”
Troubles: If you haven’t had an acknowledgment of your letter after two weeks, call the permit department and find out whether there is any problem. A fire permit in a local park is a slightly unusual request. But a friendly call or two from you can help to show the permit staff that you are serious and willing to follow through. It will also, hopefully, get you a connection with a permit staff person who will be interested in shepherding your application along.
If you can’t establish a connection, or if you get the feeling your application is not being actively considered, ask your recreation supervisor to call Permits and get the inside story.
Call your city councillor: Trying something new in your park will always be working against gravity, so you may have to find some extra support. A request for help from your city councillor can work well here. If you explain to the councillor’s staff that you are trying to enliven your park and draw in others from the neighbourhood, they may be willing to call the permit department and let them know that the request has merit. It’s good to keep your city councillor in touch with what’s happening in public space anyway.
When you get the permit, find a person to give you a lesson in park campfire safety. Although much fire safety is common sense, there are a few specifics. Sand is a safer way to put out a fire quickly than water, for instance (no steam). Water finishes the job and cools it down, so you should have two buckets of sand and two of water right beside the fire, and a shovel to move things around if necessary. In our experience it’s best to build the fire on level ground, not dig a pit. That way there’s no slope for anyone to stumble down toward the flames. For additional safety you might wish to erect a tripod over the fire. You might also consider having a blanket on hand in case you ever need to smother flames on a person.
“Trying something new in your park will always be working against gravity… a request for help from your city councillor can work well here.”
In seven years of frequent cooking fires at Dufferin Grove Park, with between 5 and 25 people around each campfire, with school classes and day camps and people who don’t speak each other’s language, we have never had an accident. That’s partly good fortune — unexpected things can happen — but also good attention to safety details.
— The main thing is to locate the fire on level ground, with ample room for people to keep a distance on all sides of the fire. There should be no nearby obstruction — a bush, a wall, a picnic table, a path — that requires people to walk too near the fire to get somewhere else.
— Because of its heat, fire carries its own natural incentives for people to stay back and have respect. Once in a long while you encounter a person who seems not to notice their position relative to the fire and gets dangerously close without appearing to be aware of it. Point this out to them if they persist. If they don’t respond with greater awareness, or if they actually clown around or enlarge the fire or take out pieces of flaming wood, make sure they leave the fire-site at once.
— If they don’t listen to you, put out the fire right then. The permit is given on the assumption that the person in charge behaves responsibly. You have to be the boss of your campfire, since the buck stops with you.
Children’s curiosity about fire: in our experience, children are very careful around fire, and also very curious. If you feel strongly that children must not be allowed near the fire, it’s probably best to have the campfire without children present, or not to have the campfire at all. Otherwise it’s too frustrating for the children. We’ve noticed that when we allowed very curious children to have long sticks which they could poke into the fire, they could experiment safely with us right there watching. They quickly learned what they wanted to know about combustion. Fire safety for children means allowing them to learn under the watchful attention of adults, not barring them from the fire site.
Volunteer campfire safety training: Check your fire safety plans with your recreation supervisor or their designated staff. They may give you some tips from their own experience (campfires or bonfires have been a staff-run activity at park/community festivals for many years). Once you’ve had your discussion (officially called a “volunteer training session”) you should be covered by your park’s volunteer insurance clause. Then you’re ready to settle the final details with the park staff. Get them to show you a water source and a sand source for your pails. If there’s none available for you, you’ll have to bring containers of water and sand from home: but every park has a source for both those things that you’ll discover eventually.
“…in our experience, children are very careful around fire…if you feel strongly that children must not be allowed near the fire, it’s probably best to have the campfire without children present…Otherwise it’s too frustrating for the children.”
Notifying the Fire Department: Then you can invite your friends and neighbours for the date on the permit. On that day, just before you’re ready to light your fire, call the central fire department despatch number, and tell them you have a fire permit and that you’re at such and such a place in your park (name the park and the intersection where it’s located), and how long you expect the fire to continue. That way if a helpful neighbour, living near the park but unaware of your permit, sees smoke and calls the fire department, you won’t be visited by three helpful fire trucks with sirens on. Bring along your permit form in case someone wants to see it.