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Monique Keiran: This is a summer to be wary of fires

Another summer in B.C. brings yet another season of wildfire crews deployed. This year feels worse than ever, with more communities evacuated, more homes and businesses damaged, and more wildfires at once — and it’s only July.

Another summer in B.C. brings yet another season of wildfire crews deployed. This year feels worse than ever, with more communities evacuated, more homes and businesses damaged, and more wildfires at once — and it’s only July.

The season had started so promisingly, with a late spring, ample rain and cool temperatures. Then it morphed over a mere week into a month of maelstroms.

Nature Boy, who had been anticipating being able to enjoy an occasional campfire this year, is resigned to another dry spell. The mild disappointment is small, cinder-baked potatoes compared to the anguish and uncertainty evacuees of 100 Mile House and other Interior communities are experiencing.

Nature Boy enjoys a good fire — not too big, nor too hot, nor too smoky. Any time the combination of fuel, oxygen and heat works its transforming magic in a contained way, this pyro-proficient can be found working to keep the flames just so and under control.

He has perfected the Art of the Campfire, applying the optimal fuel-to-size-and-shape ratio to achieve an efficient, effective masterpiece of small-scale, controllable burn. Having introduced numerous neophytes to the joys of camping — and camp coffee, bannock-on-a-stick, marshmallow roasts, and so on — Nature Boy has lit campfires in rain, sleet and snow, in pits, hibachis, fireplaces and campsite barbecues.

The knowledge and skill he and generation upon generation of others acquired over years of human existence have been verified in the lab.

Engineering researchers have determined the perfect shape of a fire to generate maximum heat without burning through fuel too quickly. By making a fire burn in a cone shape, as wide at the bottom as the fire is high, you attain the most efficient air and heat flow around the fuel.

It’s also — lucky us — the shape in which humans seem to have built their campfires since, well, seemingly forever. The difference is that researchers ran the models, gathered the data and tested them, and confirmed that, yes, we were doing it right all along.

Well, hurray.

Of course, we now also better understand the environmental costs of gratuitously burning wood. Wood fires release soot and chemicals. This pollutes the air and increases incidence of asthma and cancer. It also adds to climate change, which in turn contributes to extremely dry, hot, wildfire-prone summers in regions like ours.

Parks and recreational areas once provided unlimited firewood to campers. Now they sell small bundles — if they make firewood available at all.

Back in the early 1990s, when the decisions were made to end free firewood supplies, the message was about air quality and the environment, but the real incentive was finances.

Social and cultural implications also permeate our relationships with campfires. For example, campfire fans tend to be divided into three groups.

One group swears by the teepee method for starting campfires. They arrange kindling over piled tinder, then slip a match between the teepee poles to light the tinder. As it catches, flames lick the kindling, and — all going well — a fire is born.

Another group prefers the log-cabin method. They stack kindling two-by-two in a square over four foundation-corner piles of tinder. They apply one lit match to the tinder at each corner of the “log cabin,” and quadruple the chances of the kindling catching.

The third group of campfire fans prefers to go from 0 to 600 degrees Celsius in minutes. They rely on petroleum-based flame-starters.

Some sociology graduate student somewhere is probably considering what these preferences might say about us.

Nature Boy sits firmly among the fire-purist groups.

“Where’s the challenge in that?” he shrugs when asked about resorting to fire starter.

“When I’m camping, I prefer the teepee method,” he says, which is charmingly appropriate. “Unless it’s really wet or the wood is green. In that case, you have to start so small and really nurse the initial sparks along until it finally catches and stays.”

Then he pauses. “But if I’m lighting a fire in an indoor fireplace, I like the log cabin.” This is also appropriate, in a metaphorical burning-down-the-“house” way.

Regardless, he’ll have to wait for rain to rekindle those campfire preferences.

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