Hot tips to keep kids safe around bonfires and campfires

June 26, 2014

Bonfire and campfire safety

Beach bonfires, a summer tradition in Southern California, are fun but can suddenly turn dangerous.  

Serious burns sometimes occur near fire pits: when the wind picks up and sparks fly; when a child gets too close while toasting a marshmallow; when a child or adult steps on hot stones buried in the sand to cool. 

Each year, six to 12 children in Orange County suffer very deep burns on their hands and feet, which require skin grafts and months of recuperation.

Burns near open fires are preventable, if a few precautions are taken.

“It’s important to be mindful of the open fire,” says Dr. Victor C. Joe, director of the UC Irvine Health Regional Burn Center.   

“Be sure to enjoy yourself, but set parameters for children and reduce horseplay near the fire pits.”

Since 2012, UC Irvine Medical Center Burn Intensive Care Unit has seen a decrease of fire pit burns by 86 percent. “Active prevention efforts have helped decrease fire pit burns,” Joe says.  

Here are tips to reduce the risk of fire pit burn injuries to children and adults.


  • Extinguish properly. Drench hot coals with water to safely extinguish coals. Repeat the process in five minutes. You can always let the coals burn out if water is unavailable. 
  • Supervise children. Children may view fire pits as a sandbox. Create a boundary at least three feet from the fire pit area to prevent them from stepping on hidden, sand-covered coals. Treat fire pits as you would a pool and exercise similar caution around them. 
  • Assume it’s hot. Be wary of embers that spark from fire pits. To avoid potential burns, always assume there are hot coals or embers at the bottom of a fire pit.
  • Keep a safe distance. Move flammable items, such as leaves, towels or trash away from the surrounding fire pit area. They can easily catch fire and lead to burns.
  • Use seasoned hardwood. Avoid soft wood, such as pine or cedar that will likely pop and throw sparks. 
  • Run cool water. If an adult or child experiences a first or second degree burn, rinse with cool water for up to 10 minutes and apply a cool washcloth. Placing ice on a burn can cause skin damage.

Do not:

  • Cover with sand. Do not bury hot charcoals with sand while at the beach or cover with dirt at a campsite. This will lock in heat and hide the danger. Coals can smolder up to 24 hours when not extinguished correctly.
  • Over-consume alcohol. Sound balance and judgment are crucial. Accidental falls into fire pits can happen and cause second or third degree burns. 
  • Use fire accelerants. Spraying gasoline or lighter fluid onto a fire can cause a flash of flames and cause the flames to race up the can onto a person’s hand. The flash flame from igniting fuel-soaked materials can reach several feet beyond the perimeters of the fire pit and severely injure bystanders. 
  • Cook without caution. When cooking on a campfire, pick up pots and pans with a pot holder. When roasting marshmallows, assist young children. Never shake a flaming marshmallow— it could turn into a flying, flaming, dangerous ball.
  • Build huge fires. Build a fire suitable to the task at hand and avoid huge flames when children are present. Always be alert to changing wind conditions and watch for flying sparks and embers. 
  • Set up tents close. Most tents are very flammable. Fatalities have occurred when tents, in which children were sleeping, caught fire. Make sure children do not have matches or a lighter when they are camping out near a fire pit.

For more information on types of burns, call the UC Irvine Health Regional Burn Center at 888-622-2876.

— Tanya M. Salcido, UC Irvine Health Marketing & Communications

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