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Should there be a campfire?

Grab your bear can or camp chair, kick your feet up and chew the fat about anything Sierra Nevada related that doesn't quite fit in any of the other forums. Within reason, (and the HST rules and guidelines) this is also an anything goes forum. Tell stories, discuss wilderness issues, music, or whatever else the High Sierra stirs up in your mind.
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Should there be a campfire?

Postby balzaccom » Mon Sep 29, 2014 10:11 am

Since this is High Sierra Topix....Should there even be a Campfire section?

Yes, I know. Sitting around a campfire can be nice. You can stare into the fire, tell stories, drink a little bit and if you are lucky, get everyone to go to bed before they start singing. We’ve done it many times with pleasure—in car campgrounds.

But if you truly believe in the philosophy of Leave No Trace in the backcountry, then one of the items you’ll need to take off your list is the evening campfire. There is no way you can have a fire in the wilderness and not leave a trace—even if it is only the barren dirt around your campsite, where you collected all the wood to burn.

We have all seen these campsites: a large fire ring, a few logs and large stones around the ring for sitting, and not a scrap of anything remotely flammable (twigs, leaves, pine cones, etc.) within 100 yards. Every tree denuded of its branches up to well over head height, where campers have broken off (and even sawed off) the limbs for their fires.

That’s not Leave No Trace. The only differences between these campsites and those in a car campground are the lack of a picnic table, and a place to park your car. It’s even worse when you make a new fire ring and blacken rocks that were perfectly untouched the day before.

And given the extreme drought and fire danger we’re facing these days in the Sierra Nevada, making a fire is no longer something we can support. The risks are too high. Last year, we lost something over 400 squares miles of forest and $1.8 Billion in damage in the Rim Fire near Yosemite—started by a backcountry hunter who didn’t manage his fire properly. And this year the King Fire alone has burned another 100 square miles.

Sure, you say. But we are very careful. Except that in a recent poll of backpacker magazine, a huge majority of those readers (and they are, after all, serious backpackers) admitted that they usually just leave the embers of fire in place to burn out after they go to sleep.

And if a breeze pipes up and blows some of the ashes off the embers, and blows the sparks into the forest? We’ve got another Rim Fire, thank you very much.

So we’d like to suggest a new version of that opening paragraph above:

Sitting out under the stars can be nice. You can stare into the sky, watch for shooting stars, tell stories, drink a little bit, and if you are lucky get everyone to go to bed before they start singing.
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby Wandering Daisy » Mon Sep 29, 2014 10:43 am

I disagree. There is s time and place for fires. Campfires are not needed as much now with gas cook stoves. It takes a bit of effort to build a campfire and properly put it out, so many backpackers do not bother. Yet, a campfire in the colder shoulder seasons is a welcome relief for long dark evenings. And I feel every outdoorsman needs to know how to build a survival fire, safely. I also totally agree with fire bans during times of very dry conditions. The big problem is that most people do not properly extinguish a fire. This is an educational issue. I feel that when you get your fire permit, you need to also be required to demonstrate your ability to properly build and put out a campfire. And the public needs to be educated on how to build a proper fire in the wilderness - neither big bon fires nor small smoky fires, but a well built, fully burning fire, using the proper stick size, on the small side, adequate for warming a small group of people.

If you totally buy into leave no trace, then all trails, signs, ranger stations and any other man-made thing also needs to be removed. After all, trails are the major enabler of humans to enter the wilderness and leave traces. Every animal that is in the wilderness, leaves a trace. Humans have a place and right to be there too. I do not believe in "leave no trace". It is a catchy phrase, but meaningless. Backpackers need to reduce their trace, within reason. I feel the current permit system does a pretty good job in dispersing use so not to cause over-use. The exception to this is the JMT. I think there needs to be better regulation along the JMT so everyone does not bunch up and camp in the same spots; or recognize this is going to happen and have permanent campsites, that in high-use areas actually reduces impact.

Least you think of me as an anti-environmentalist, I worked at NOLS during the 1970's when we worked with the Forest Service to develop "leave no trace" methods. We tried many things- some worked some did not. The practical aspects of what is working is evolving, even today. It is not only campfires, but erosion, poop handling, visual impacts, and much more. Bottom line usually comes back to too many users and a need for a permit system. The wilderness is large, yet most use bunches up a few popular spots.
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby RoguePhotonic » Mon Sep 29, 2014 11:32 am

You can put me on the list of people that just let their fire burn out into the night. Often enough if I am laying out I actually like to build the fire up large and then get into my sleeping bag so the trees are all lit up as I stare at the stars. Not the best practice but saying I do it. :p

I also almost never stomp out embers when they fly out of the fire. Actually more as an experiment than anything else. And in all the years of having fires I have never had an ember actually catch fire to anything else. Even when decent sized ones popped out into dry grass.

The closest example to a spreading fire I can say I have seen myself is I have built new fire rings in remote areas before where the ground layer of duff must have been extremely deep because after a hot fire the night before I have woken up to tons of smoke all around the pit as it slowly burnt it's way outside the rocks through the duff.
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby caddis » Mon Sep 29, 2014 11:34 am

One more thing to add to WD's post, the wilderness act which set aside so much of the high country stipulates three criteria a landscape has to possess for designation:

1.5,000 acres, or manageably large.
2.Substantially natural.
3.Possess outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, or both.

There is little that is more primitive than a fire and the very definition of confining would be more regulations telling us what we can or cannot do.

Campfires have their place but sadly many of those places are abused
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby Jimr » Mon Sep 29, 2014 11:59 am

I don't think I've ever seen "leave no trace" concepts argued so literally. I've always seen it as "leave no trace that I was there" Basically, leave the places you pass through/use in the same or better shape than when you arrived. There is no way to eradicate 150 years of heavy human activity, but a consciousness built around reducing our own impact can go a long way in helping to preserve what is there.

I think there is a place for camp fires and much of the problems that do revolve around their use are a result of ignorance and/or carelessness (by careless, I mean care-less). The ignorant may be educated, the care-less don't give a crap.
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby oldranger » Mon Sep 29, 2014 2:25 pm

Paul

I'll have to join the cast disagreeing with you, respectively though as you make some good points. But I pretty much agree with Daisy and Jimr.

And then I'll add if the visibility of a "small" fire ring is bad (I agree the large ones are distasteful) then how can you justify the building of trails? They are pretty unnatural. Get rid of trails and the whole issue of trailhead quotas would disappear! As would stock use which seems to bother many people. And I defy you to find where I have had fires where there was no previous fire ring. Of course my fire was small and I did not build a ring.

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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby markskor » Mon Sep 29, 2014 3:43 pm

Respectfully, also in the pro-campfire contingent, although unless cooking up a trout or two for dinner, very rarely have a fire, especially if camping by myself. Usually at that time of night, out fishing or already in my bag reading. Indeed campfires (small, only where/when allowed, and well-managed) will always have a place Sierra if even only for the entertainment of the youngsters to roast up S'mores.

Additionally, also agree with Mike about the absurdity of calling out LNT as the sole reason to ban campfires. Well-established campsites, sites heavily used for hundreds of years, (I might add safely), are now being demolished by self-righteous do-gooders who take it apon themselves to destroy historically convenient and legal rings, (where thousands have previously camped)....under the guise of LNT. Talk about being selective in how one interprets LNT... Do you really expect that you are the first ones to camp there?

Coincidentally, these same hikers readily use the trails, depend on marked trail signs, cross bridges, climb cables, utilize bear boxes...(BTW, most never get 100 feet off any trail)...absurdly hypocritical if you ask me.
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby LMBSGV » Mon Sep 29, 2014 9:51 pm

I’m with all of the posts above. As the forum description says:

“Grab a stump, kick your feet up and chew the fat about anything Sierra Nevada related that doesn't quite fit in any of the other forums. Within reason, (and the HST rules and guidelines) this is also an anything goes forum. You can tell stories; discuss wilderness issues, music, or whatever floats your boat.”

When I first joined and read this description, I thought this is a place with like-minded people I’d like to hang out with. There’s a sensibility to Eric’s description that connected to me. I immediately comprehend that description and all its implications. No, I haven’t built a fire in the Sierra backcountry for years, but I do build fires anytime I car camp, in the Sierra or anywhere else.

Sitting around the campfire and discussing anything and everything is something that is both a primeval human evolutionary human trait and something that resonates personally. The first time I did this is when I was nine years old. (I still remember the night and where I was in the BWCA.) My wife and I have had some of our most deepest, most profound discussions during our 41 years of marriage around a campfire.

This is the place where we can discuss anything and everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. There are posts here I’ve laughed at for the humor and posts I’ve cried while reading.
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby balzaccom » Tue Sep 30, 2014 8:53 am

markskor wrote:Respectfully, also in the pro-campfire contingent, although unless cooking up a trout or two for dinner, very rarely have a fire, especially if camping by myself. Usually at that time of night, out fishing or already in my bag reading. Indeed campfires (small, only where/when allowed, and well-managed) will always have a place Sierra if even only for the entertainment of the youngsters to roast up S'mores.

Additionally, also agree with Mike about the absurdity of calling out LNT as the sole reason to ban campfires. Well-established campsites, sites heavily used for hundreds of years, (I might add safely), are now being demolished by self-righteous do-gooders who take it apon themselves to destroy historically convenient and legal rings, (where thousands have previously camped)....under the guise of LNT. Talk about being selective in how one interprets LNT... Do you really expect that you are the first ones to camp there?

Coincidentally, these same hikers readily use the trails, depend on marked trail signs, cross bridges, climb cables, utilize bear boxes...(BTW, most never get 100 feet off any trail)...absurdly hypocritical if you ask me.


A few notes in response---glad to see people participating in the discussion. Perhaps I was not clear enough in my initial post, but I was not suggesting that LNT is the ONLY reason not to have a fire. In fact, the more powerful reason is the concern about the drought and wildfires that have had such a massive impact on the Sierra over the past two years. There is a reason that fires have been outlawed in many areas this summer.

Is it possible to have a safe fire? Sure. But I would point out that most of the readers of Backpacker magazine, as well as at least one of the posters right here on this board, do not follow the standard procedures for a safe fire. And that apparently doesn't concern anyone else on these boards, although it did concern the editors of the magazine.

Do I like a fire? Sure, particularly when I am car camping--when I can burn commercial firewood. But I also hate denuded campsites in the backcountry---and it's the campfire that strips those areas of all organic material.

As for the logic that people have done this for years....not convincing to me. People have been idiots for years, and wildlife and land management regulations have changed over the years to try to limit the damage that we do...this would be just another case of that.
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby AlmostThere » Tue Sep 30, 2014 9:37 am

I think everyone who is blasé about their bad campfire habits should go out with a trail crew decimating illegal campsite. I belong to one such nonprofit crew that has removed 74 bad campsites and more illegal fire rings from Dinkey Wilderness. One of the more dangerous trail crew activities is fire ring removal - prior to dispersing ashes far and wide one must sift by hand for glass and trash. Leather gloves and great care are needed. Shards of metal from cans and heavy, sharp broken glass are hauled out by the crew and disposed of properly. And unless we sink 50-60 pound boulders with tall sharp points in the campsites, people will come right back and build another six foot wide ring. It can take a day and a half to rehab a single large site.

I will have fires when taking groups of noobs - when it is legal to do so. But I am increasingly of the opinion that they are more work than they are worth and rarely have one - more experienced friends with adequate layers tend to have the same attitude.
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby Wandering Daisy » Tue Sep 30, 2014 10:30 am

Campfires ARE a lot of work and unless you are willing to do this work to build and put out the fire properly and ATTEND the fire at all times, you should not have a campfire. I personally started a fire in the 1970's. Thankfully others who stayed in camp while my group climbed were able to quickly put it out. Although I had doused the fire, the wind was fierce, and reignited the larger embers, blowing them out of the fire pit and onto duff. Large embers need to be doused, cooled, crushed or broken so that no heat remains, even in their interior.

Campfires have probably saved me from hypothermia a few times too. In those conditions, it is actually hard to get a fire started so fire danger is low. Both the fire, and the physical effort gathering wood warmed me up. One can dry clothes by a campfire. In the Sierra it is rare to have a week's steady rain with no sun to dry things; but in other mountain ranges with these conditions I consider the skill to build a campfires even with wet wood, is essential. If you have only backpacked in the Sierra, you really do not know what bad weather is all about.
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Re: Should there be a campfire?

Postby markskor » Tue Sep 30, 2014 11:37 am

AlmostThere wrote:I think everyone who is blasé about their bad campfire habits should go out with a trail crew decimating illegal campsites. I belong to one such nonprofit crew that has removed 74 bad campsites and more illegal fire rings from Dinkey Wilderness... unless we sink 50-60 pound boulders with tall sharp points in the campsites, people will come right back and build another six foot wide ring. It can take a day and a half to rehab a single large site...

Not at all blase about campfire habits and fairly experienced in backcountry morals...but also concerned here about the habits of those who go out with the intent of "decimating illegal campsites"...BTW, who decides what is illegal? If one ring is good, are two that bad? Yes, in many areas, too many fire rings are erected needlessly. I commend those who go out with the intention of cleaning these up but, too many times I have seen every ring gone where IMHO some (which were legal) should be just left alone. Just clean up the ring trash but let some of the rings stay. As mentioned, immediately afterwards someone will come along and re-erect another ring just feet from where the origional ring once stood...you come back and destroy the new ring...etc. Soon countless scars mark the well-established site where only a few rings once stood. How is this improving the landscape? Both sides should share part of the blame here.

While I commend you for sifting through and cleaning rings of trash - the glass chards and alumunum scraps...(I wish more well-meaning individuals would be so concerned...I too sift through and collect aluminum and glass into my trash bag after any fire made)...stop there. The fact remains that many volunteer "Trail crews" don't stop there...often all rings get tossed into nearby brush and waters.

The places I have been to after being "cleaned" are well-used...often at destination lakes where there may be only one or two good areas to camp. Now instead of just one or two rings which may be somewhat too large but the rest of the site looked clean, now there are countless black scars and fire remnants scattered all about the site, the benefit of the cleaning crew. How does this coincide with LNT?
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