When to Say NO to a Campfireand 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 dryunusually 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 coinat 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
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 pastand times yet to comein 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 dangerousor 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" stovesstoves fueled by gasoline,
kerosene, propane, or butanewin out over campfires (almost) every
To be sure, not all stoves are created equal. And no stove I've used is
perfect. The three models I'm most familiar withthe old Optimus 111B,
the little Optimus Svea, and the Coleman Peak Iare 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
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
woodsmenscraping away all organic soil, lopping off tree limbs,
building elaborate stone fireplaces, and the likeare 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 alternativesat 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
dryespecially if it's been hot and dry for a whileif 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