Cmpfre-Safety-art - 6/17/14
"Campfire Safety in the SCA" by HL Ivo Blackhawk.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
You can find more work by this author on his online workshop at:
Campfire Safety in the SCA
by HL Ivo Blackfox
Disclaimer: I am no longer a certified firefighter or safety professional. This paper represents my combined experience, training and studying for urban and woodland emergency response, as well as studying for my college degree in safety. I stand by my claims and opinions, but welcome anyone with better, or more current information to build on the groundwork I have laid out here.
When you're talking about safely handling a fire, nothing will protect you better than understanding the forces you are dealing with. The "Do"s and "Do-not" of rules are a good guideline, especially for people who seldom deal with open flame, but within the SCA, it is a safe wager that we are more often exposed to open fire than the average person, and probably interact with it more frequently in an SCA setting than most other points in our life. As a former municipal firefighter, and a degree holder in Safety and loss prevention, I've seen first hand what happens when "the list" is heeded in place of basic knowledge, and the result is not always a good one.
One of the primary things when dealing with fire that helps keep you safe is a basic understanding of what it is, and how it behaves. At its core, "fire" is a chemical reaction between fuel, heat, and oxygen. You have to have all four of these elements (four, including the reaction itself) together in order to have fire. When they do combine, fire will generate heat while consuming oxygen and fuel. Depending on what is being burned, and how efficiently the process if, the reaction can also generate a number of byproducts ranging from soot, to highly toxic gasses and vaporized liquids.
One other thing to know about is heat. Heat is energy, and that energy can be transmitted three different ways. You probably already know most of these empirically, but some common nomenclature will help the conversation.
Conduction is when fire heats something up, and that in turn heats something else. Any time you've accidently grabbed the unshielded handle of a metal pot on a burner is both a painful remember to get a hot mitt, and a perfect example of conduction.
Convection is when a hot fluid moves from one place to another carrying heat. Fluid in this case is "usually" gas or smoke, but can also be any liquid. The important thing to remember about this is that gasses don't travel in one direction. Even hot smoke, which technically goes "up" can be pushed and twisted by gentle wind into all sorts of patterns, patterns that can carry the hot air in various different directions.
Radiant heat is one of the most misunderstood, in my opinion. In short, it's actually a form of light, though not a light we can see. Radiant heat is what usually keeps the half of you facing a fire warm, while the other half is freezing. The important thing to know about radiant heat is that it travels in a straight line, and behaves just like visible light, the farther away you are, the less intense it is. It is invisible, which is why a dark pile of embers can still keep you warm ten feet away.
Now that we have the building blocks, as it were, out of the way, lets talk about how to be safe with it.
First of all, fire needs oxygen, just like we do. If you can breath, so can a fire. In fact, a fire can burn perfectly well in less oxygen than is needed to keep you fully awake. When heaters or braziers, or catalytic converts talk about 'ventilation' that's a two way equation. Yes, they want to get rid of the smoke or byproducts that can, or may, be produced, but they also want to make sure the device doesn't eat all of the oxygen out of the air around you. Modern tents tend to have terrible ventilation in this respect. While they can breath, with a rain fly up and the doors closed, some of them probably can't move air as fast as a small heater will consume oxygen. While I won't tell you whether you should or should not use a certain heater in a certain tent, I will say that I will not sleep with lit heater in my tent, and unless it is too hot to touch, I would still move an unlit one outside before going to sleep.
And while we're talking about gasses, the fumes created by fire are nothing to ignore. The actual products of a fire depend entirely on what is being consumed, and in what ratios. Simply increasing the flow of air can turn a smoky mess into a clean burning torch, and inversely, cutting off a good flow of air can create a 10, 20 or even 30 pound smoke bomb capable of suffocating everything in a closed room or tent. "Smoke" is not a single, defined term, it's a catch-all term talking about just about any dark-colored gas or gas-like mix coming off of a fire. Different things can create different byproducts. Some bars of soap, and some natural fabrics can generate poisonous gasses, while dish soaps, laundry detergents, and even deodorants can potentially generate vapor clouds with blinding or suffocating effects. Carbon Monoxide, most commonly produced by poorly ventilated natural gas burners, can also be generated by a number of commercially available fuel sources if the burners are not properly maintained. Carbon Monoxide is odorless, tasteless, and almost the same density as air, meaning it will stay or go just about as readily as the air around it. Once again, a carbon monoxide source in a modern tent, or even some of the more tightly constructed period pavilions can turn the structure into a gas chamber in a matter of hours, or even minutes.
Dealing with fire itself is about three quarters common sense, and the rest is learning from those who come before you. Most of us know how to make and maintain a campfire, so I'll omit that 5-paragraph essay. But what we do with it once it's built is where some practices differ.
Remember, fire is an ongoing reaction. So long as you see red, or feel heat, or even see evidence of heat, there is the very real potential for a small fire, even embers, to grow, and grow quickly. Once a fire is used it needs to be extinguished, heavily contained, or watched.
Lets get the gray area in this out of the way. I personally don't think any level of containment is sufficient for an active fire. Anything short of an indoor fireplace with a door has the realistic potential for fire and an unexpected fuel source to meet with bad results. One mischievous child, one excited dog bumping into something, one well intentioned adult who is out of their element, and you have the makings for a fire that can char acres, and/or bring a structure down to the foundations without regard for lives or property.
As for monitoring, as much as I would love to say you need a dedicated guard on any open fire, the reality of the matter is checking in every fifteen or twenty minutes, and never straying more than a few strides, (but always within eyeshot) of a smoldering campfire is a highly advisable step. With larger camps of ten or twenty, for multi-day events, this could easily be divided into two or three hour shifts between 2 and dawn (Like any SCA camp at a war knows how to completely shut down before two am).
More practically, a campfire really should be extinguished if its not monitored.
Putting out a campfire is straightforward, but not to be taken lightly. Ideally, the hot coals should be spread out evenly to let the air rob them of their heat. As long as they are glowing, they are hot, and usually for a while afterwards. I always hesitate to burry a fire unless its in a dedicated fire pit. Sand, dry clay, or even drying mud can trap pockets of hot smoldering embers underground. Worse case scenario is the heat builds and finds a way to the surface, like a half buried branch, or a dead root. More likely, the pocket is physically unstable, and someone, thinking the ground is firm, steps on it and suddenly is standing "in" a small pocket of coals. Yes, its rare, but it has happened.
Realistically, if the embers don't cool, or haven't had time to cool, (or even if they are cool), soaking the campfire with water is never a bad idea. Water robs the chemical reaction of the heat it needs, and when completely submerged, starves it of air. A pair of two gallon buckets can usually take down even a large camp fire in short order, and by using two smaller buckets, most people, even young teens, have the strength to wield them effectively.
A good thing to note, if you're dousing a hot bed of embers, or even if you could be dousing a hot bed of embers, you are going to get steam. Municipal firefighters are more often treated for steam related burns than fire related burns, due to the fact that for the first few moments, the fires they have can usually convert water to steam faster than their hoses can push water out.
Attack from the side, pour rather than splash, and be poised to step back quickly if steam erupts. Realistically, so long as you don't upend the bucket outright, you shouldn't get more than a good sound show.
Controlling a fire while it's burning is really just controlled extinguishment. You want to regulate the flow of air as best you can, and only give it fuel when you want it to grow. Airflow is best handled by how the logs in a campfire are arranged. If the fire is roaring like the working end of a blowtorch, you can pull the lumber apart and spread it out across the floor of the fire pit. This will break up the ventilation and dampen the fire substantially. Inversely, if you want to get a fire going, you can stack logs in the "log cabin" or "teepee" type, where there is a lot of air flow over a lot of surface area.
Fuel is really common sense. You can add more, but taking it away is tricky as all you are really doing at that point is making a big fire into a less big fire and one or two smaller ones. It is doable, and not overly dangerous if you keep you head about you, but be aware before you start plucking logs out.
Controlling fire spread is something you need to be able to do. Indoors, or with a well established fire pit, this is usually a trivial matter. But if you're cutting a fresh pit, plan for the worst and be able to deal with the unexpected. If an ember starts a fire, the fastest thing you can probably do is step on it, assuming it will fit under your shoe. But even then you want to put dirt on the smoldering spot when it's over. If the fire gets a foothold, fall back on the basics. You can splash it with water, or you can pull the grass and leaves around it away, starving it of fuel. Try not to swat at it or hit it with anything, even a wet blanket, as the motion can (and usually does) scatter hot embers all over the place and makes thing generally worse. Usually if a small piles of leaves does catch, it will be close enough for you to just shovel or rake them into the fire pit, and if not, then rake around them and wait the three or five minutes for the show to burn itself out.
Personally, the best hand tool I have ever encountered for both managing a camp fire, and controlling a grass fire was a metal tined rake, and a close second was a hoe, with a shovel as a well established third. All three of them are cheap, cost effective, durable, and proven. Frankly, not having one of these (or a good substitute) around a campfire is bordering on foolish.
Lastly, lets talk about the other danger from fires, other than the fires themselves. Realistically, we use fire for two things, light and heat, with the latter being the dominate feature. This means spits, pots, pans, bowls, and just about anything else that you can put in or over a fire. When you're not talking about a campfire, you're talking about a stove, or a brazier, or some elevated fire container of some sort. To even summarize the options there would be a ten page paper, but suffice it to say there are a lot. I can't even talk about all the possibilities, but again lets fall back on the basics.
Most fire "containers" are metal. Metal is strong, cheap, durable and reliable. The drawback is that it also is one of the best conductors of heat. Camp stoves, propane burners, braziers and even tiki torches have metal in their construction. The good news is that (for our purposes) metal doesn't burn. The drawback is that it gets really, really hot without any outward signs. Cooking utensils, pot handles, fireplace pokers and even hotdog forks are the most common source of campground burns, usually when someone goes "that looks cool" and find out how wrong they are.
Part of good fire etiquette is controlling what you work with. If you heat something up, like a pot, keep an eye on it until it's cooled down. Camp stoves and propane burners cool quickly, so make sure not to jam them back in a box or in the back of a truck or trailer moments after using them and you should be okay. The rule of thumb I have always heard is half an hour, but I think that is actually more than is strictly needed.
Larger metal items will take more time to cool, If you have some sort of stove or tray that weighs four or five pounds, its probably going to take an hour or three to cool down. Don't try rushing the process, shocking it with cold (or even hot) water could weaken the metal, or snap it. The best thing to do is just let it sit, and cool on its own. If you know when you're going to be departing, plan ahead to empty the coals out of it early and then let nature pull the heat out on its own.
Personally, I find the idea of moving a hot stove or "coal tray" of any type a foolish task, and something to be done only as a last resort. Even devices supposedly designed to be movable ultimately mean you are lifting up a source of heat with enough energy to inflict second or third degree burns in a matter of seconds. Everything looks good on paper, but when its my skin in the game, I tend to play the unapologetic coward when I can.
If one must be moved, I recommend the distances be short, and the contact be minimal. In fact, if you can use something to give you reach, like maybe a long stick, or a piece of lumber held between two people with the stove or tray suspended between, I recommend doing it.
Touching anything that is hot, or could be hot should be done with protection. Layered cotton or wool is best, and I usually avoid pulling on kitchen mittens as they are hard to get off of my hands in a hurry. Hot pads are great, as is just a plain old towel folded over three or four times. I try to avoid synthetics where I can as they can melt, and in extreme cases melt into the skin of the person wearing them. Natural fibers will burn, and can hurt you, but when compared to the damage of molten plastics on your skin, the benefits are clear. Somewhat counter-intuitively, wetting cloth actually makes it more dangerous as the water will transmit heat faster through the layers and to your skin. Inversely, leaving wet cloth out to dry by the fire is both a good idea, and something that needs to be minded.
A bucket of water is always a good idea around a fire. First for the obvious ability to extinguish flames, but also, if someone does burn themselves, immediately being able to hit the burn site with cool water can make the difference between a mild burn and major tissue damage. Soak it until it stops hurting, and then keep soaking it for a while longer.
In the end, your heat source for camp is as much a part of your camp as the tents are. You need to plan ahead and carry the proper tools, schedule time for setup and tear down, and make sure you have reasonable contingency plans for the most likely mishaps. Don't make the fire bigger than it needs to be, and don't get impatient with it when you're cooling it off. Give it time and show it respect, and it will serve you well.
Copyright 2014 by Cisco Cividanes, <engtrktwo at gmail.com>.
Creative Commons License
"SCA Campfire Safety" by HL Ivo Blackhawk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.