The Case for 'Make No Fire'

I agree with David Lintern that we (urgently) need a debate about the making of fires in our wild spaces, and I am grateful that he took the plunge and voiced that need. But while I think David's is, by far, the most sensible take on the matter among some of the other advice dished out recently, I want to argue that we, the anonymous multitude of outdoor folk, need to go a step further and make the use of open fire in UK wild places socially unacceptable. Not making a fire is the only responsible option available to us. Not convinced? Here is my case.

There are three key issues that need to be addressed when it comes to the responsible use of fire: 1. the risk of starting a wildfire, 2. the immediate damage a controlled fire causes, and, 3. the paucity of fuel and the damage caused by foraging for it.

Wildfire risk

There are two main ways in which a controlled fire can start a wildfire: an underground burn and overground spark. The former happens when a fire is located on the top of material that is itself combustible. Such material can smoulder underground for days, and travel some distances before flaring up. The most obvious risk here comes from peat, which happens to be the second largest carbon store on the planet (after the Amazonian rain forest), i.e., it burns extremely well, and most of which is in Scotland; majority of our wild places are covered in it -- it might seem obvious to some not to start a fire on peat, but I suspect many don't know what peat actually looks like, particularly when dry, or don't realise how ubiquitous it is.

Peat is not the only problem, underground roots can smoulder away for ages thanks to high resin content, and are very hard to put out, a couple of guys pissing into the fire pit is nowhere near enough. (I once spent over an hour extinguishing a fire someone built on the top of an old stump, it wouldn't stop sizzling in spite of copious amounts of water repeatedly poured onto it, it scared the hell out of me.)

Then there is the flying spark igniting stuff outside your controlled fire pit. Open fire always generates sparks, even wood burning stoves do, when the pot is not on. In the right conditions it takes a very tiny spark to get things going. Sparks can fly considerable distances, and might well jump any perceived safe buffer zone around your fire. The amount and size of sparks generated grows with the size of the fire, plus the bigger the fire, the bigger the updraft and the less control you have over where your sparks land.

In practice, the risk of wildfire can be reduced, but is hard to eliminate. It's ultimately a numbers game. If the individual chances of unwittingly starting a wild fire from a small controlled fire are 1 in 1000, then a 1000 people each making a fire once will start one wildfire. Whatever the actual numbers, the growth in participation works against us. Let's be under no illusion: an outdoor culture that accepts fire in wild spaces as a part of the game will start wildfires. It's not a question of whether, just of how often. Is that something we are happy to accept as a price worth paying? How often is OK? Once a year, once a decade? Once a month?

Immediate Damage

Fire is the process of rapid release of energy, and that energy has to go somewhere; in our wild places it goes somewhere where it should not, where it is not expected and in doing so it affects an irreversible change. Fire kills critters in the soil. The rising and radiating heat damages vegetation in the vicinity (it takes surprisingly little heat to cause lasting damage to trees, I reckon an irreversible damage happens to at least three times the distance to which a human face can comfortably bear the radiation). Such damage is not necessarily immediately obvious, but is there, and adds up with repeated use. A single fire under the Inchriach pines might seem as doing no harm, but tomorrow that's someone else fire in its place. (Next time you pass Inchriach, look up directly above the ignominious fire pit, compare the two sides of the pine.)

There are other, more subtle issues. Ash is a fertiliser; it is also alkaline, affecting soil acidity. The repeated dumping of ash around a given locus will inevitably change that ecosystem, particularly if it's naturally nutrient poor and/or acidic. Dumping ashes into water suffers from the same problem. Individually, these might be minute, seemingly insignificant changes but they are never isolated. We might feel like it, but we are not lonely travellers exploring vast sways of wilderness previously untouched by human foot. I am but one of many, and increasingly more, passing through any given of UK's wild places. The numbers, again, work against us.

Lot of folk seem to think that if they dig a fire pit, then replace the turf next day they are 'leaving no trace' -- that's not no trace, that's a scar with little superficial make up applied to it. It does not work even on the cosmetic level; it might look good when you are leaving, but doesn't last long. The digging damages the turf, particularly around the edges, as does the fire. The fire bakes the ground in the pit, making it hard for the replaced turf to repair its roots, and it will suffer partial or even complete dieback as a result. Even if the turf catches eventually, it takes weeks for the damaged border to repair -- the digging of single use fire pits, particularly at places that are used repeatedly by many is far more damaging than leaving a single, tidy fire ring to be reused. Oh, the sight of it offends you? The issues surrounding fire go lot deeper than the cosmetics.

Paucity of fuel

In the UK we have (tragically) few trees. It takes surprisingly large quantity of wood to feed even a small fire to just make a cup of coffee. It is possible to argue that the use of stoves, gas or otherwise, too has a considerable environmental impact, just less obvious, less localised, and that the burning of local wood is more environmentally friendly. It's a good argument, worth reflecting upon, but it only works for small numbers; it doesn't scale. Once participation gets to a certain level, it burns lot quicker than it grows, and in the UK we have long crossed that line.

There are many of us heading into the same locations, and it is always possible to straight away spot places where people make fire by how denuded of dead wood they are (been to a bothy recently?). This is not merely cosmetic, the removal of dead wood reduces biodiversity. Fewer critters on the floor mean fewer birds in the trees, and so on. Our 'wild' places suffer from the lack of biodiversity as is, no change for the worse is insignificant. If you have not brought the fuel with you, your fire is not locally sustainable, it's simple as that. If it's not locally sustainable, it has no place in our wild locations.

The Fair Share

It comes down to the numbers. As more of us head 'out there', the chances of us collectively starting a wildfire grow, as does the damage we cause locally by having our fires. We can't beat the odds, indeed, as this spring has shown, we are not beating the odds. There is only one course of action left to us and that's to completely abstain from open fires in our wild places. I use the word abstain deliberately. The making of fire is not a necessity, not even a convenience. It's about a brief individual gratification that comes at a considerable collective price in the long run.

As our numbers grow we need the personal discipline not to claim more than our fair share of the limited and fragile resource our wild places are. The aspirations of 20 or 30 years ago are no longer enough, what once might have been acceptable no longer can be. We must move beyond individual definitions of impact and start thinking in combined, collective, terms -- sustainable behaviour is not one which individually leaves no obvious visual trace, but one which can be repeated over and over again by all without fundamentally changing the locus of our activity. I believe the concept of fair share is the key to sustainable future. Any definition of responsible behaviour that does not consciously and deliberately take numbers into account is delusory. And fire doesn't scale.