Low Impact Fire-Building

Paul Whitfield and Hague Vaughan

We, the authors, would surprise few people by stating our belief as Scout Leaders and professional ecologists that Scouting has always been about conservation and ecology. Scouting's emphasis has always been on outdoor activities as a means for boys to build character and citizenship, to explore and establish their relationships to each other and to society, to develop sound patterns of thought and action, to immerse themselves in the joys of the outdoors and "to bring the boy to God through the direct appeal of Nature and her store of wonders" (B.-P.'s Outlook).

To these goals we might now add Stewardship expressed through activities such as Trees for Canada, recycling, wildlife habitat enhancement projects, no-trace camping or hiking, and river or trail cleanups. Scouting pursues many other facets of ecology through education and action including conservation management, energy conservation, endangered species, wise use, waste management, and the development of environmental ethics and convictions.

All this being said, you have to wonder how it is that we each independently concluded that the restoration, renewal or enhancement of conservation as a primary focus within our respective and distant Scout Regions was the best possible objective for our personal efforts in Scouting. For that is what has happened. One of us (HV) turned his Troop over to another Leader and defined a new position within Hamilton-Wentworth Scouting (Regional Conservation Manager) with relations to both program and property included in a proposal to coordinate a multi-troop wildlife habitat enhancement pilot-project and to develop a conservation management plan for Camp Nemo, the Regional Scout Camp. The other (PW) has similarly defined a new position (Assistant Regional Commissioner for Environment and the Outdoors) in the Fraser Valley Region with responsibilities to enhance program aspects related to education, outdoor ethics and the nature of environmental choices.

It was only at that point that we each discovered the actions of the other and, more importantly perhaps, the common motivation. Suddenly we were a MOVEMENT!! This suggested that further action at a national level, such as this column, would be appropriate. Subject to editorial patience, we propose to describe details of our new initiatives in later columns and perhaps inspire others by our examples and experiences. We also are aiming to initiate a bit of healthy discussion or controversy.

As a start, we would like to deal with the a fundamental question: "Scouting should be leading in this area: why, therefore, are we only following?" Harsh? Perhaps, and there are plenty of exceptions some of which are described in the pages of this magazine. It seems like most of those exceptions are due to the efforts of individual leaders at the Troop, Pack or Colony level.

Our position is that Conservation and Ecology are not simply subjects for an achievement badge or a weekend activity but rather part of the larger picture. They are the essence of Scouting and are woven into the fabric of all programs from Beavers through Leadership Training. Why then don't we do them better?

We have been asking that question of a lot of people, feeling instinctively that the answers would tell us a lot. They have, but mostly it has been about the multifaceted nature of Scouting. A dominant response has been the lack of sufficient emphasis on conservation and ecology in training or program design. Many leaders we have spoken to do not feel adequate to the task of organizing and implementing a Troop plan oriented towards the conservation badges.

It is thought, rightly or wrongly, that conservation is difficult as well as somewhat incompatible with other program elements. We seek to demonstrate that this is not the case. Other responses have related to Scouting Culture including the dominance of Scouting images such as campfires, large camps, sapling/string construction, jamborees, etc. and the recent (past?) emphasis on high-tech camping. All contribute to an approach to Scouting which can cause conservation as a core value to become diluted unless special care is taken to ensure its persistence.

Certainly the Citizenship, Arrowhead, personal development, service and outdoor badges deserve all the attention we can possibly give to them and our position is not that the conservation badges are more important. Rather our argument is that the simple diversity of activities, issues and circumstances which scouting attempts to deal with in an increasingly complex world may be resulting in a failure to develop and nurture a value system which can be readily applied to all of them. We are fostering a pleasing image of comraderie and shared outdoor experience but without providing an internally consistent and consistently relevant belief system which can give them depth and meaning. The authors feel that such a belief system is anchored in the concept of stewardship which incorporates citizenship, wise use, conservation and ecology.

"Sounds good but how can we begin to correct this drift?" you possibly say. We offer a first example based on the importance of making informed outdoor choices. Fires!


Fires are part of scouting traditions yet more and more today we are hearing questions about fires in Scouting programs. Making informed choices about what we do is important in all parts of life. Fires are one such area. There is no black and white answer here - fires are neither entirely good nor entirely bad. Each of us needs to be able to make a decision based on the available information and our own ethics. As society's environmental concern grows along with the demand for outdoor experiences Scouting can play an important role in providing a firm basis for learning how those choices can be made. The range of opportunities to have a fire are quite wide, and having a fire is important under many circumstances. Having a fire where the choices is more difficult such as in pristine areas is the subject of this article.

Carelessly constructed fires leave scars on the land, in fact they are the single biggest impact in the back-country. The blackened rings of old fire tells of human use long after trails have disappeared. Fires have five necessary ingredients in common: safety, minimal site impact, simple construction, firewood is plentiful, and cleanup is simple and effective.

One of the problems we face is that so much of the outdoor literature deals with the simple mechanics of building a fire - fires for survival, heating, cooking etc. Only a few references concern themselves with the environmental aspects - some promote an outright ban, others suggest making informed choices. Fires are no longer essential for an outdoor experience in fact even the Boy Scouts of America has an anti-fire policy. A complete ban is overkill; fire building can be done effectively and responsibly. What an opportunity - to learn how to do something effectively and responsibly and to build a fire all at the same time!

Fires depend on a source of fuel. A primary guiding principle is that a fire is an option when there is enough fuel. Only when there is plentiful wood is a fire a reasonable possibility. How can we measure 'plentiful'? One rule of thumb is that it would not be evident that firewood had been collected. This can be accomplished through collecting from a wide area rather than 'cleaning-up' one place. What is the wood if we don't burn it? Will it go to waste? The wood we leave behind is habitat, it is 'used' by all manner of life from birds to fungus.


Careful Construction Techniques

Smart planning is needed to allow you to build a fire with the intention of leaving no trace when it is completed. Often we are so concerned with teaching scouts how to get a fire to burn we miss the real picture. When we are going to have a fire the problems is not simply getting it going and keeping it going. Rather it is the entire process of having a fire; the planning, gathering materials, lighting, burning, clean-up, and site restoration. Having an environmentally friendly fire is a skill which is worth learning.

There are a number of low impact fires that we can use in our programs. Try these on your next camp, and then follow it up on a return visit - has the environment recovered from the minimal impact you left?


Building a Pit Fire

One way of building a no trace fire is to build a pit fire. This method prevents permanent damage to the soil from a fire is to temporarily remove the living layers of the soil. One of the prime reasons fires leave scars on the landscape is the result of the intense heat - it effectively sterilizes the soil beneath the fire. The soil is living - it's full of bacteria, mould, and fungi busily decomposing the litter. Dig a shallow pit, removing the duff and litter layers of the soil, down to where there is mineral soil. Clear an area larger than the intended fire, and keep your fire in the center - see figure 1. Remove the layers carefully, and stockpile them to one side. Avoid pit fire where the duff layer is thick, and areas where roots or vegetation are present. Keep the fire small, and when the wood is all burnt away and cool simply replace the stockpiled duff layer, and recover with the litter you have saved. In a short period of time the area will recover. A fire build in this way can recover in a matter of a few months - a pit fire we build one June couldn't be identified the following September.

Building a Mound Fire

The principle of a mound fire is that you create an insolating layer of mineral material between where you will have a fire and the soil. You can acquire the mineral soil from underneath a fallen tree, or by collecting sand from along a stream course. Use you stuff sack to carry the soil to where you are going to build the fire. Here is another place to think ahead - how an I going to clean this up? A small piece of groundsheet even nylon- about a meter square can be used for the base, or you can use a large flat rock. Build up the mound on top of the sheet from 4 to 6" thick and about 24" in diameter (Figure 2). Build your fire in the centre of the mound. When the fire is finished, it is a simple matter to return the mineral soil or sand to where it came from. The groundsheet allows you to remove even the signs of the mound.

Using a Fire Pan

Another alternative that some prefer is a fire pan. A firepan is a portable fireproof container in which the fire is built and the ashes contained. These are more practical when canoeing or otherwise traveling on water, simply because of the weight. The pan can be made of garbage can lids, parts of barbecues, Parts of oil barrels, or large roasting pans. Some even have lids that both extinguish the fire, and contain the ashes. The remains of the fire can be used to start the next fire. The firepan can simply be placed onto exposed mineral soil or sand and the fire built within. Again, mineral soil is used to insolate the ground from the heat of the fire. Disposing of the ashes is yet another choice - in some cases they can be spread about the campsite, in others it may be best to pack them out.


Beach Fires

Often when we are traveling near water firewood is plentiful. A beach fire is an excellent option. On an ocean beach build the fire below the high-tide mark. Build a fire on the beach without surrounding rocks. The heat of the fire can cause them to crack, and the carbon scarring can last for years. When the fire is completely out it is simply a matter of waiting for the next high- tide which will remove all trace of the fire. On lakes and rivers build you fire just above the current water line. The next increase in water level will also remove the signs you can't avoid.


Thorough Clean-up

Wise site selection and careful fire construction are wasted without a good cleanup. You must allow sufficient time to do a quality cleanup. Get in the habit of not having a morning fire by using your stove, and cleaning up from the night before. One of the secrets is to work at burning all the wood completely out. Scouts will find this a good challenge as the exercise of burning a fire away to ash requires careful attention, and plenty of patience. The well planned fire of today leaves no trace for tomorrow.