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Burning Issues

When to Say NO to a Campfire—and Why

By Tamia Nelson

October 8, 2002

It's raining as I write this, a steady, sustained, soaking rain. Such rains aren't uncommon in the northern foothills of New York's Adirondack Mountains, but they were very rare this year. The summer that just ended was hot and dry—unusually so, in fact. Fire weather. And not surprisingly, we've had our share of fires. Some 70 flared up across the Adirondacks in August alone. Most were small, almost intimate, affairs. Many involved only a few acres, or a few tens of acres, and nearly all were contained quickly. None reached the size of the terrible western infernos that led the network news broadcasts.

A few still smolder on, though, and a brush-fire complex that began in a training area on Fort Drum (home to the 10th Mountain Division) was initially allowed to burn unchecked. Public-affairs officers explained that there was too much unexploded ordnance lying about, and that it simply wasn't safe to send in fire-fighting crews. Later, however, as complaints from surrounding communities grew louder and harder to ignore, helicopters were dispatched to drop water on selected hot spots. It seems to have worked. The pall of choking smoke that drove some vacationers to cut their holidays short is now only an unpleasant memory.

All in all, we were lucky. It could have been much worse.

Fire safety shouldn't depend on luck, though, should it? But what are the alternatives? Should we depend on government agencies, instead? Should we wait for an official warning to be posted before we worry about the danger? Probably not. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) didn't get around to imposing a ban on outdoor fires till mid-August, when the summer camping season was nearly over. Careful campers had given up wood fires and turned to portable stoves much earlier in the year.

Now, with the drought continuing, but with recent rains reducing the immediate fire danger to "moderate," the DEC have lifted their short-lived ban. Does this mean that anything goes? Certainly not. Prudent paddlers are still relying on their stoves. (A ban on campfires in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness remains in effect.)

OK. Given that formal fire bans often come too late and are sometimes lifted too early, and considering the devastating consequences of a major backcountry blaze, what can canoeists and kayakers do to minimize the risk we pose to our woodlands? Quite a lot, as it turns out. But first, let's take a brief look at the other side of the coin—at fire's ecological role, and at its persistent allure, as well.

The Wisdom of Shiva

Shiva, the Hindu god often portrayed dancing in a ring of flame, is both destroyer and creator. So, too, is fire. Its destructive capabilities need no discussion. Its creative power, however, is less well understood.

Forest fires are great liberators. In a standing forest, most inorganic nutrients are locked up in the trunks of trees, the leaves of plants, and the deep mats of forest-floor litter. Fire frees these mineral elements from their organic matrix and, in some circumstances at least, greatly enriches the soil. That's why fire is an essential element in the "slash and burn" agriculture of many forest peoples. Fire is also a powerful tool for altering the land and making it more useful to human beings. Just as the North American landscape owes a largely unrecognized debt to the beaver, it bears the stamp of its earliest human inhabitants. Long before the age of "scientific forestry," American Indians were using fire to create vast, open deer parks, as well as to clear fields for planting. In fact, much of what we regard as "wilderness" today, where (in the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964) "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man," is in truth the product of hundreds of years of deliberate human modification.

Fire also has another essential ecological role. In addition to its power to recycle nutrients, it plays a vital part in the reproductive life of certain plants. The jack pine is perhaps the best-known example. One of the dominant species in the subarctic spruce-fir forest, the jack pine reproduces through seed-bearing cones, but these cones remain closed until awakened by the heat of a wildfire. Only when periodically scourged by fire can the species survive. Without wildfires, the jack pine would die out.

Shiva's hand is everywhere in nature. Fire destroys. Fire creates. And fire enraptures.

Forbidden Pleasures

It's no secret that human beings are fascinated by fire. Our ancestors built great hilltop bonfires to celebrate the summer solstice. Today, we light candles of remembrance in our churches, shuls and temples, and kindle eternal flames over the tombs of our honored dead. In camp, and in front of our living-room hearths, as well, we "dream the fire," discovering images of times past—and times yet to come—in the shimmering, ever-changing dance of flame.

Some people, of course, go much further than this. If you've ever watched the crowd of spectators at a house-fire, you'll know that many folks find fire very exciting. It's a surprisingly common human trait, and it helps to explain our collective fascination with the all-consuming flame. Of course, fires can be profitable, too. In some hardscrabble rural areas, seasonal fire-fighting is one of the few jobs that pay good money. So, in years when nature doesn't oblige, someone with a gas-can and a lighter can usually be relied upon to force her hand.

Whether they're naive "enthusiasts" or outright arsonists, however, people who love fire too much are very dangerous—or at least they can be. The backcountry is no place for a pyromaniac, and anyone who's been compelled to spend time in the woods with one will go to a great deal of trouble to avoid repeating the experience.

Of course, most paddlers light fires only for heat or comfort, and for no other reason, and most are also content to leave the discussion of the role of "controlled burns" in forest management to experts. But what can we do to minimize the risks of uncontrolled burns? Surely that's the most important practical question. And I'd suggest that we begin by asking…

Is This Fire Necessary?

Oftentimes the answer is no. If the goal is a quick hot meal, prepared with the least fuss and bother, "gas" stoves—stoves fueled by gasoline, kerosene, propane, or butane—win out over campfires (almost) every time.

To be sure, not all stoves are created equal. And no stove I've used is perfect. The three models I'm most familiar with—the old Optimus 111B, the little Optimus Svea, and the Coleman Peak I—are all flawed beauties. The 111B was heavy. Very heavy. (I say "was" because it's no longer available.) The Svea is comparatively expensive and hard to modulate: don't bring a Svea if your meals require long, slow simmering. And the Coleman is a bit Rube Goldberg-ish (Brits read "Heath Robinson-ish"). Or at least my early model is, at any rate. Later models may be less fussy. Still, with just a little practice, any and all of these stoves can be up and cooking in less than five minutes, in just about any conditions, and with no need to forage for fuel. Where convenience and efficiency are concerned, there's simply no contest. Stoves beat wood fires hands down.

Safety's another plus. Though both my Svea and my Peak I have erupted in fire-balls from time to time, the cause was always my own carelessness. Over-pressurization is the usual culprit. The remedy? READ THE INSTRUCTIONS. Then practice starting and regulating your stove at home. (NOT in the house, however. Go outside on the patio, or into the garden.) And remember to position the pressure-relief valve so that it points away from you. If you don't, and if you allow your stove to operate at grossly excessive pressures, you may find yourself engulfed in a jet of flame. Do I need to say that this won't be fun? I didn't think so!

When operated with care and attention to detail, however, a well-maintained stove is about as safe as any contrivance made by the hand of man, and it's a lot less likely than a wood fire to get out of control and burn down a forest.

Is it game, set, and match to stoves, then? Not quite. There are times and places where a wood fire is very welcome. Neither the radiant warmth of flickering flames nor the steady heat of smoldering coals can be matched by a hissing, stinking stove. And economy comes into the question, too, particularly on long trips, when conserving stove fuel can be an important consideration. But…

Is It Safe?

Sometimes. A small driftwood fire built on a sand beach is about as safe as any fire can be, and if it's on a coastal foreshore, all traces will be gone soon after the turn of the tide. Fires built on the forest floor are much more problematic, however, especially when overhanging trees pose a direct fire danger. And the solutions touted in the handbooks written by old woodsmen—scraping away all organic soil, lopping off tree limbs, building elaborate stone fireplaces, and the like—are often illegal today. Even where they're not, they're usually horribly impractical.

A fire-pan is a much better alternative. It needn't be elaborate. The lid of a steel garbage can works fine, though outfitters' catalogs are filled with elegant, engineered alternatives—at a price. Most are much too heavy for go-lighters, however. The go-light brotherhood (and the ladies' auxiliary) have only two choices: rely on a portable gas stove, or use one of the little pocket woodstoves that show up in the catalogs from time to time. I used one of these for many years. It folded up into a package no bigger than a paperback book, but it would boil a quart of water with no more than a double handful of twigs, small sticks, and old pine cones. It's been absent from the catalogs for years now, but I'm sure that similar stoves are still available, and you can always make your own. Just take an empty "one-pound" coffee can, add a simple cross-wire grid, and cut vent holes around the bottom edge. Now you've got a portable woodstove. It won't fold up, but the price is certainly right.

Still, no fire-pan or pocket stove can eliminate the hazard of sparks. It's always necessary to site any wood fire properly. Sand and rock are good. A clearing that's free from loose litter and deep duff is acceptable, except in high winds or during periods of elevated fire danger. And just what constitutes "elevated fire danger"? It's not a hard call, fortunately, and you don't need to wait for an official announcement. (It may not come until an inferno is already blazing.) If the weather's hot and dry—especially if it's been hot and dry for a while—if the streams are running low and the leaves crackling underfoot, then it's no time to be building a fire, whatever the authorities say. And wind makes everything worse. A gentle breeze can carry live sparks for tens of yards. The worst winds, like the withering Santa Ana of Southern California, can turn any landscape into a tinder-box.

Is it safe? The answer hasn't changed. Sometimes. If a properly-located fireplace is provided at your campsite, and if the fire danger is low, use it. If there's no fireplace, use a fire-pan. And be sure to place your fire-pan well away from anything flammable, with an eye toward the probable strength and direction of the wind.

Think green, too. Burn only "down" wood, and not too much of that. Gather fuel from as wide an area as possible, and never take too much from any one location. (Except in real emergencies, never forage for wood around an established campsite.) Keep your fires small, and never leave a fire of any size unattended. The only fire that's safe to leave is one you can put your hand in without flinching.

Most importantly, though, don't set match to tinder if you suspect that the fire danger is higher than LOW. If in doubt, doubt. "Dreaming the fire" is delightful, but an uncontrolled wildfire is a nightmare beyond most people's imaginings. Remember Shiva, dancing in the ring of flame? Destroyer and creator, giver of life and taker. Fire, too, is both creator and destroyer, and lives hang in the balance every time you strike a match. It's an awful responsibility, but there's no ducking it. Shiva doesn't care. He has eons and worlds to spare. But we don't. So it's up to us.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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