Body-warming fire can be lifesaver

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- Alaska adventurer Roman Dial still remembers the day when his numb fingers refused to work and fire became not just a comfort but a necessity.

An entrant in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a cross-country race staged from Hope along the wild length of the Kenai Peninsula to Homer in the mid-1980s, Dial had skied off the Harding Icefield and inflated a one-man raft to float the Fox River.

''I floated down the Fox without a paddle, and I flipped in a rapid,'' Dial said.

Wet and badly hypothermic, he struggled to shore. Around his neck was his fire-starting kit with matches and a candle. But, Dial said, ''my hands weren't working.''

He managed to get out the matches and the candle, but lacked the dexterity to get it lighted. Fortunately, he found another combustible.

''I had to burn a map to get started,'' Dial said.

With the flaming map, Dial got the candle going and then some dry twigs of spruce. From there, for an expert fire builder like Dial, it was a simple matter of adding twigs and branches until there was a rip-roaring, body-warming fire.

It was not the first time Dial badly needed a fire, nor would it be the last.

An assistant professor at Alaska Pacific University, Dial teaches a wilderness pack-rafting course, of which fire-making is a key part. Pack rafts are three-to-five-pound inflatable boats backpackers carry to cross or float wilderness rivers.

A fast and efficient means of travel, the little boats have one big liability: They easily take on water.

Pack rafters often find themselves floating in a boat half full of cold, glacial melt. Paddlers end up soaked with cold water, and nothing pushes body heat down faster than cold water.

''They call a pack raft a shiver boat,'' Dial said.

Shivering is an early sign of the onset of hypothermia. Shivering means it's time to paddle to shore, start a fire and warm up.

That's why Dial teaches fire building. He might be one of the few outdoor educators who still do. Because of the potential environmental scarring that fire can do, its use is discouraged -- or banned -- in many parts of the country today.

And Dial is careful to stress that he teaches his students to build their fires on the sand or gravel bars of rivers, where subsequent flooding will wash away any fire sign.

Campers, backpackers, rafters and most other recreationists taught outdoor skills these days are typically discouraged from fire building.

''Unfortunately,'' says The Outward Bound Backpacker's Handbook, ''campfires are now like pine-bough beds, lakeside campsites and four-wheel brontosaurs that get 10 miles to the gallon: A luxury that we cannot afford. First, fire rings are an ugly and extremely long-lived reminder that people have passed that way before. Blackened rocks remain discolored for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. . . . In addition, wood smoke is a health hazard.''

Other problems, according to the book:

The danger of starting a forest fire;

Denuding trees for firewood; and

The unsightliness of woodcutting by ignorant ax-wielders, who leave forests looking like they have come under a mad-beaver attack. (It's better to take trees down neatly at ground level, where the stumps are almost invisible.)

Even the Boy Scouts of America shies away from campfires now.

''The development of efficient, lightweight camp stoves has encouraged a shift away from the traditional fire,'' the Scouts' Web site notes.

They also lack the body-warming, heat-drying output of a rip-roaring campfire.

David Manzer probably knows about those values as well as anyone. In 1989, Manzer almost become the first fatality in the history of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.

Focused on winning the race, he tried to run some boulder-strewn whitewater on the Chitistone River near McCarthy. His little raft went into a hole and was essentially sucked out from under him. Manzer was suddenly in the river.

''I couldn't tell what was down, up or sideways,'' he would say later. ''I just swam. I just swam like hell. I didn't think I was going to get out of it. It was just too strong.''

Then the river spit him out. His boat and gear gone, he somehow made shore. He doesn't know how. He does remember giving thanks that the day was relatively warm and that he still had his fire-making kit with him.

He was trying to make a fire when, almost miraculously, fellow racers Adrian Crane and Tom Possert stumbled on the scene. They recognized that Manzer was severely hypothermic.

Crane and Possert knew what they had to do. They got Manzer into a dry sleeping bag and started a big fire.

They propped Manzer up close to it and started heating water to pour into his body. It took hours, but Manzer recovered.

Even today, fire can spell the difference between life and death for hikers, backpackers, snowmobilers, skiers and even drivers. In areas of open tundra, fire is simply not an option. But in other areas, it can be a lifesaver -- if you can get a fire going.

The basics of this task haven't changed in thousands of years, although matches and butane lighters have made things a lot easier.

No longer does fire-making require striking flint on steel to generate a spark that must be carefully nurtured in a ball of tinder. Nobody carries glowing embers in a pouch to be nurtured with tinder to start a fire these days, either.

Even the need for tinder has been eased. Where primitive people might have fashioned a ball of firestarter from hair-thin spruce twigs, modern man usually has a variety of portable combustibles at hand from FireRibbon to Sterno.

''I like a candle,'' Dial said, ''but I also like bug dope on toilet paper.''

A cup of white gas or, better yet, kerosene poured on a pile of wood can help get a fire going, but even that is no guarantee. Basic fire-building skills remain important.

Fuel poured on waterlogged wood will simply burn off the surface of it before the wood ignites. Dry, flammable materials are still required to get a fire started. Small, dry flammable materials still burn better than big logs.

Start with twigs. Work up to branches. Then think about adding the bigger wood.

Here in Southcentral Alaska, the spruce-bark beetle infestation has been a boon for fire builders. The age-old rule for the best kindling has always been this: Dead but on the tree.

Dead on a dead tree is even better if the tree still has enough of a canopy to keep rain off its lower branches. Ideally, a fire builder is looking for a spruce tree with tiny lower branches sheltered by thicker branches still holding needles.

Usually, small twigs taken from a tree like this will burn just like matchsticks. Gather plenty of them and use them to start the fire. Have larger branches ready to add as the flames grow and extra twigs as backup in case the flames fade.

Dial said to remember to provide plenty of ventilation too. Fire requires both fuel and oxygen. Big fires create their own drafts to supply oxygen. Small fires can be given a boost by blowing on them, or you can build them in a location where the wind does the same thing.

The most difficult fire-making conditions occur in heavy rain or when trees are coated with frozen rain. In those situations, look for resinous knots of spruce (evergreen resin is that substance from which turpentine is made) or birch bark or use an ax, even a knife, to split dry branches and create kindling from the dry wood that remains inside.

The Boy Scouts, meanwhile, still offer good advice on minimizing the environmental impacts of campfires. Among their suggestions:

Always be aware of fire danger before building a fire so you don't start a forest fire.

Note whether enough wood is available so you can take some without it being noticed. Even in Alaska, trees around popular camp spots can end up stripped of branches.

Consider whether the climate is capable of regenerating wood as fast as people use it. Mountain hemlock trees in Alaska, for instance, take forever to grow. Except in a survival situation, it is wrong to resort to them for firewood.

Build fires in existing fire pits or fire rings, or know how to build a fire that leaves no trace. No-trace fires can most easily be built on fire mounds made from river or beach gravels or in fire pans. Fires made on river bars in Alaska can also be quickly disguised by stirring gravel back together and taking any fire blackened rocks and tossing them out into the current.

In glacial rivers, they'll never be seen again. In clear-water rivers, they'll clean themselves up.

The Boy Scouts also recommend against the use of saws, hatchets or axes for firewood collecting. They can leave unsightly reminders of their use and are all too often used to harvest green wood, which doesn't burn well.

If you do cut wood, use a saw to take down dead trees at ground level, so as to avoid leaving unsightly stumps. If you use an ax to cut up the downed trees, make sure to scatter any unused wood after use to leave the area looking undisturbed. The same goes for fire-charred logs; just make sure to soak them thoroughly to kill any fire before scattering them.

Subscribe to Peninsula Clarion

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us