As a forester I must point out that our scorched forests are largely a result of strict protection from fire in the past on public lands, and a lack of harvesting. The vast majority of fires in the backcountry are caused by lightning.
Loc: California (southern)
That is perfectly true. However, in both Arizona and California, there have been at least two monumental fires that were careless campfires. I can't recall their names - the Heber fire in Arizona, and the big one near San Diego a couple of years ago. I am not certain about the Station fire in the Los Angeles NF. We have way too many clueless people out there with matches, but it only takes one or two. I am pretty sure we all realize that you don't care for the historical management practices in western forest, and we all realize that there is abundant data to support your position. Of course, there are those prescribed burns which managed to get loose...
Remember, only you can prevent forest fires!
Is it OK to discuss those fires? After all, I wasn't on any of those fire lines (those pesky rules which prevent the elderly for having any fun)- I only read about them.
Let us not forget the out-of-control "control burn" that closed roads and torched acres of land in Yosemite just a couple of years ago...
There are lots of places along routes to some of my favorite hikes that are just forest fires in the making - lots of deadfall and zillions of tiny trees just ready to become tinder. You can tell a fire hasn't been through in a long time.
And, I've come upon still-hot coals in a lot of fire rings - even cross country hiking. Poorly built campfires can ignite roots under ground, too. Then there is the pull-the-end-into-the-fire method - light a great big chunk of wood on fire and leave it smoldering. You can't trust people to be Leave No Trace, or even Follow Regulations Or Get A Fine.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki
Loc: California (southern)
The year was 1957 and I was taking fire fighting training for my very first NPS job, fighting fires all summer in the Rincons. During the course the question arose about letting fires burn under some circumstances. Our instructors told us that there had been some experimentation with "controlled burns,: which promptly ended when one near Prescott jumped the lines and burned unanticipated acreage. What can you say - even in the best of circumstances, you are playing with fire.
We had a good year. Our first thunderstorms delivered more rain than lightning, so our fires were relatively small and fairly easy to extinguish. The last one I fought was nothing more than a decent campfire by the time we reached it, requiring about fifteen minutes of easy work. The time keeper was amazed that we did not claim any overtime...
Right now is a pretty good time in most of the west to let a fire go. It will usually quietly consume the light fuels and make the forests safer - usually. It is a tricky business.
I have recently had the opportunity to extinguish some campfires in local campgrounds - all situated in highly flammable oak woodland. People are unbelievably obtuse about fire sometimes.
When I was in graduate school in 1974, there was a movement at the U of WA to convince the USFS Reg 6 in Seattle to consider the use of prescribed burning as a management tool. It was many years later that the Feds were even willing to have a discussion about it.
What is old is new again. Now the Federal Govt is in love with prescribed burning, and they use it at inappropriate times. The National Park Service is by far the worst offender. They insist on lighting fires in September, like the recent bad one in Yosemite. They insist on lighting fires when the weather changes for the worst and the USFS calls them and says they had better cancel their plans. (Los Alamos fire). In 1988 during the driest year in a century, the Park Service elects in Yellowstone to adopt the let in burn philosophy.
The Forest Service and the BLM on a lesser scale have a decent track record in the use of prescribed fire. The Park Service is like a bunch of kids with matches, and needs adult supervision.
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
Back in the late `70s early `80s, when I lived in CA, I heard a rumor that firefighters were starting fires so they could get overtime pay. Shortly after that a firefighter somewhere near Ventura/Oxnard did get arrested with incendiary devices in the trunk of his car that were very much like those used to start a wildfire. A few years later there was that woman firefighter in CO that said she was burning a "love letter", or something to that effect, that also started a wildfire.
I got to witness a single tiny bottle rocket start a raging brush fire in Saugas, CA one evening when I was there to watch a car race. It was put out very quickly by the local fire dept, but it sure demonstrated how fast they can get roaring.
An old timer that grew up in the San Fernando Valley told me that the hills surrounding it were covered with big old oaks when he was young. It must have been really beautiful back then. What a difference people have made there!
I used to work near the Van Nuys airport and watch the C-130s when they were pressed into service fighting fires. They look so big when they're on the ground, and so tiny when they are dumping on the fires.
Loc: California (southern)
Sadly, that is not the first time that has happened. As a matter of fact, there is a current case here in SoCal in which a top arson investigator is accused of being an arsonist. He got away with it for several years. I don't recall the details nor do I wish to. Arson is among the most despicable crimes.
I believe it has been concluded that the Station fire, the largest in LA history, was arson caused.
There can be no doubt, that firefighters have their share of arsonists. When fire weather is favorable, some firefighters get really antsy. They have seasonal jobs, and hope for overtime pay. When it doesn't show up, a few of them take matters into their own hands.
For anyone who has worked with people who have studied fire scince, not just the grunts on the field crews, don't you think some of them are unusual people? Some fire people are really into fire, in a scary way.
We take a home made hobo stove that folds up inside the cooking pot, when we leave the camp site area we make a game of leaving no evidence we were ever there. We always plan on two meals a day. In some places because of the possible spread of fire and sparks we use one cooking stove for all four people hiking but only when really needed. Our population is loving our wild-life to death.
Many reach for distant shores only to run to the safest harbor.
This is not intended as a thread to discuss the ethics of fires in the backcountry; that's an issue that involves too many variables including where you are hiking, and has been well-discussed in other threads. For purposes of this thread, let's simply accept that in most times and places, campfires would be at odds with Leave-No-Trace practices. I'm also not trying to re-ignite the "light is relative to what you're planning to do" issue; we can safely assume that as an accurate and well-proven point, too.
Instead, I'd like to get some discussion on whether fire is "cheating" at the ultralight game. This question occurred to me after reading another thread in this post, and seeing a headline at BackpackingLight.com (I think it's an ad for their store, not a serious article; but I'm no longer a member there, so I don't know.)
The other thread I read here made the point that one of the trade-offs true ultralighters (and sub-ultralighters) make in order to carry the extremely light loads they carry is to make compromises in warmth: they might choose to take a 30-degree bag when 20-degree lows are predicted, and only a light down vest or sweater, only liner gloves, and lightweight, not midweight, long underwear. The logic is that they're going to do high-mile days and spend very little time in camp, so they'll tolerate not being toasty warm for a lighter load.
The headline at BPL is: "TO BUILD A FIRE: Stave off the chill ... with a warm, comforting blaze..."
That is a strategy that works, no doubt about it (assuming you have the requisite skill to be able to get a fire going when it's been raining all day, and all the available wood is soaked.) However, it seems to me that somehow a line has been crossed here. I have to wonder if part of the UL philosophy has morphed to say that LNT, once held as a near-sacred principle, can now be compromised or ignored in order to shave a few more ounces off the load.
I'm not trashing the ultralight philsophy; far from it. I have benefited greatly by following it generally, though I haven't gone the full route. (Yet.) It changed the way many of us viewed backpacking, from an "assault on the outdoors," with 60 pound packs and everything we could need, ever, to "fitting in to the outdoors," with correspondingly lighter packs. Lessening one's impact, rather than leaving one's mark, was a natural fit with the minimalist style you adopt as an ultralighter. It sparked a revolution in gear, as cottage makers forced the big companies to drastically redesign their gear or risk losing a growing market segment.
I'm just wondering if we're reaching the point of going too far in the relentless pursuit of weight reduction, and if it has now become an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end. (I hopped off the UL train at 17 pounds, and I'll add the heavier bag and jacket without a second thought; I still don't light fires.)
I guess I cheated last weekend. I suspected we didn't have the gear for as cold as it was going to be. So we went to a place where we knew there are fire rings and planned to get up before sunrise so we could have a fire. So about an hour before sunrise, I lit a fire and we drank coffee for awhile before packing up.
When we left, the campsite was no different than we came. To me, this is the essence of "leave no trace."
In the national forest near here, it is permissable to build a fire ring where there is none. However when you are done, you are supposed to scatter the rocks and cover the ashes. The area is the cleanest I've ever hiked in. This particular area has the oldest trails in the national forest system and has been in use for almost 100 years.
From my observations, it is the car campers who leave the most trash and cause the most damage. The areas a mile away from the trailhead don't seem to change too much.
I don't think you cheated at all. You modified your plans to find an area where your particular gear load and the camping conditions could be reconciled. To think you cheated is to slide over into the "is fire ever ethical?" discussion - in the situation you described, it's clearly not a violation of LNT, since the land managers set up an area to "sacrifice" by concentrating the non-LNT use.
My original discussion was oriented toward "what do you do when two competing philosophies are apparently at odds?" Using fire, instead of carrying a stove, would be in line with going light at all costs. However, assume that you're not in a dedicated camping area with a fire ring, and that LNT would indicate that it would be best practice not to use a fire. What do you do: go for the lightest load and use a fire, or give precedence to LNT and take a stove? Which philosophy wins?
First, I do not believe in UL as a philosophy or a game which competes against any ethics, which is what LNT is, outdoor ethics. In fact, I do not consider UL a philosophy at all, I look at it as techniques which allow one to carry less weight. Without knowledge and skill going without certain gear or using minimalist gear is uncomfortable at best and potentially dangerous. If one want to "win the UL game", strip naked and run into the woods with nothing. There, the skin out weight is zero, you win.
That said, it is the techniques, knowledge and skill which allow one to be safe, have fun and still hold true to outdoor ethics. For example, I know few who carry a trowel to dig cat holes. How do they practice LNT principles? Knowledge and skill. Same with fires. LNT does not dictate to never crap in the woods or never make a fire, Just that there are ways to do it in a manner consistent with outdoor ethics. If one knows what they are doing they can build a fire and still be practicing LNT. Just as they can take a dump in the woods and still be practicing LNT. LNT is not a set of rules, but a guiding set of principles which constitute outdoor ethics.
To me, a more significant question/discussion would be when a situation requires one to choose between two (or more) LNT principles. These discussions would be similar the Talmudic scholars who debated ethical scenarios which required one to violate Rabbinic Law in order to obey another.
As one who has studied Talmudic discussions, perhaps I can shed some light on this as it's a perfect analogy.
Talmudic discussions generally take place over many years. Each side is discussed in great detail. Many of the discussions are just for fun and a way to delve into different concepts in the Torah. Others expound on civil law in a way that rivals a legal encyclopedia in fairness. Often a writer will choose an opposite position just so it is discussed.
To focus on the physical aspects of the Talmud would be making a great mistake. Much of it is allegorical or what if types of questions. The key is the value concepts behind the discussions. In the end, they make a ruling to follow "for now." In a future time and place, one of the other opinions might be more appropriate. In most cases, the most lenient way is chosen.
I think it's the same with this discussion. For a trail where there are lots of campsites with fire rings, I see no problem using a lighter weight sleeping bag and using a fire on the nights you need it to stay warm. If a situation arises where I need a fire and there is no fire ring, then I'll choose a place for a fire that will leave as little trace as possible. Or I will choose a place where nobody is likely to stumble across it.
That could be a very interesting discussion - what would be some examples of two LNT principles that conflict?
This weekend, we backpacked along a trail that had the oldest campgrounds in the United States. Back in the 20's, about 2,500 people used to camp along the trail during the weekends. They weren't exactly LNT. Then in the 40's, the area got cleaned out by a big flood. There are signs around not to remove any evidence of camping as it has historical value. It might even be illegal to clean out an old fire pit with a steel grate because of the old cans in it.
As I looked around, I realized the forest benefited from removal of a lot of the dead wood. This allowed for a lot of diversity in plant life. Maybe people are part of the ecology. Maybe we are meant to camp in areas, clear the wood in fires and then move on. Perhaps strict adherance to LNT damages the forest.
Great example! Do we perhaps need to introduce "situational ethics" into LNT? It may already be there - I thought I rememebered reading something about taking where you're hiking into account as you apply LNT principles.
I'm ashamed to admit I haven't stayed current on the ins and outs of LNT over the years. (I re-read them from time to time, but never spend a huge amount of time deliberating over it.) When I first learned the concept, it was expressed as "Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time." And, backpacking only in the lush vegetation of the eastern US with its relatively quick recovery times, that works. It isn't as critical if you made a small mistake (I'm talking about one night of camping on vegetation, not about indiscriminate scattering of food or hacking on growing trees.) Since I haven't lit a fire in 25 years myself (resembles a chore too much), since I splash through the muddy trail instead of going around (and have the wet socks to prove it), and since I don't cut switchbacks (easy - they don't believe in them in Ohio), it's just never been much of a problem to comply substantially. If I ever go somewhere less resilient, I'll definitely need to put in some study time. (My last thorough reading was about 5 years ago, before a trip to Isle Royale.)
It would only seem logical, though, that you adapt the principles to fit your area - more strictly applied where damage occurs more easily and takes longer to heal, routinely applied elsewhere. It would also seem that, in your case, you have justification (in the form of regulation) that trumps some LNT principles for a circumscribed case.