Horror at the campsite

When Nicole and her family went camping, she had no idea the trip would end in disaster.
that's life!

Nicole Keag, 37, Cleveland, Qld

A turquoise sea and sparkling white beach beckoned. ‘Want to go and test the water?’ I asked my daughter Camryn, then two. It was our family’s first camping trip of the year. My hubby Russell, 44, and I had taken Camryn and her brother Jackson, now five, to Stradbroke Island off the Queensland coast for a long weekend.

Pitching our tent on a beach with a group of friends, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky – though it was windy. ‘There’s been a fire ban all week,’ the campsite manager warned, telling us we couldn’t light any during our stay. I could see why. Hot and windy weather is a dangerous combination. Once we set up our tents, I was ready for a swim.

Camryn took my hand as we walked down to the beach and giggled as the waves lapped around her ankles. The water was refreshingly cool, so we walked back up the sand to change into our swimmers. As we were walking, my friend Di took a photo of us.

‘Let me see!’ I said as we approached. Camryn was by my side as I stopped to look at the picture, then she saw her dad near the tent and I let her toddle over towards him. Suddenly, she let out an agonising scream that made my blood run cold. I couldn’t believe Camryn was capable of such an awful sound.

Looking up, I saw she had fallen on all fours between Russell and me. We both ran over, Russell scooping Camryn into his arms while I scanned the ground for a snake or spider. That’s when I realised something.

(Credit: that’s life!)

‘It’s hot!’ I cried. ‘The ground is hot!’ Our girl had walked over a spot where a campfire must have been lit. Her skin was so badly burned that her hands and feet had turned white. As we raced Camryn to the cooling ocean, her screams broke my heart. ‘I’ll call an ambulance,’ Russell said, running to the car.

Minutes later he was back, and while Di looked after Jackson, I held Camryn as Russell drove to a spot where we could wait for help. Pouring some bottled water into a salad bowl, I bathed Camryn’s hands and feet. But her screams wouldn’t stop…

Finally, help arrived. Paramedics gave Camryn pain relief before rushing her to the island’s medical centre, where a doctor ran her burned skin under cold water. ‘The rescue helicopter is in use, so we’re going to have to send you to the mainland by ferry,’ he explained.

With Camryn’s wounds wrapped in cling film, we made the 40-minute ferry journey before being met by an ambulance that rushed us to the burns unit at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane. There, a doctor explained the seriousness of our girl’s injuries. ‘Camryn’s hands and her right foot have first and second degree burns and should heal quite quickly,’ he said. ‘But the burns on her left foot are third degree.’

(Credit: that’s life!)

As her feet and hands were wrapped up in special dressings, I couldn’t comprehend how our camping trip had ended this way. The doctor explained the skin on Camryn’s left foot had been permanently damaged. She would need to have regular skin grafts to stretch the skin over her growing bones and wear a compression sock to stop her toes from fusing together. One careless act had changed my daughter’s childhood in an instant.

Thankfully, a few days later we were able to go home, where Di met us with Jackson. ‘He was our little fire marshall this weekend,’ she said, explaining that after we’d left the campsite he’d been so worried about his little sister he’d gone around pouring water on the ground.

He shouldn’t have had to do that, I thought. With the fire ban in place there shouldn’t have been any campfires on the island. The incident was still playing on my mind when I took Camryn for skin graft surgery the following week.

Speaking to the doctor, he said it was something he sees quite often. ‘I’ve already treated more than 30 children for similar burns this year,’ he said. I was shocked. I decided to show others what can happen when campfires are not properly extinguished, and asked the doctor to take a photo of Camryn’s burned left foot.

(Credit: that’s life!)

This is the result of campers covering their campfire with sand and departing without properly extinguishing the fire, I wrote, posting the image to Facebook. Soon I’d received messages of support from people all over the world. Some even had similar experiences. I read about a boy who had lost his fingers after picking up sticks in a burnt out fire.

‘This can’t go on,’ I said to Russell, and I decided to launch a campaign to raise awareness. Six weeks after the accident, I took Camryn to the office of Queensland State Premier, Campbell Newman, along with her surgeon, to present my research.

The Premier agreed to post signs instructing people to douse campfires with water in national parks across the state. It’s a small step, but one that might save a child from serious harm, and I’d like to see it rolled out nationwide.

I’m just glad my girl’s staying brave. She’s since had a second skin graft operation on her left foot and has endured months of dressing changes and physiotherapy, but she rarely complains.

She’s now an ambassador for the Children’s Health Foundation and is featured on the back of this year’s Queensland Firies calendar. Sadly, Camryn’s life has changed forever. But I won’t let other kids suffer.

Campfire safety

*Campfires reach temperatures of over 800 degrees C and those covered with sand will still be 500 degrees C on the surface.
*Coals can remain at 200 degrees C for hours – hot enough to cause severe burns in less than a second.
*A fire extinguished with a bucket of water will decrease the temperature to 24 degrees C within minutes, making it safe for a toddler or anyone to touch after 10 minutes.

Related stories