Put another tank on the fire

  • Babe, how 'bout I put a few more PSIs of propane in the ol' inferno?"


While last year’s fires were torching Western lives, homes and trees, their accompanying fire bans were torching something else: the West’s camping plans. “I don’t want to camp without a campfire,” my wife informed me last season, while smoke from the Hayman Fire settled over Denver.

Her feelings echoed those of thousands of Western campers who took the summer off. And who could blame ’em? Camping without the late-night payoff of staring into the soul-stirring flicker of a wood fire? It’s as pointless as nonalcoholic beer and fat-free ice cream. The fire bans also torched the potential income of those who cater to campers, and the state and federal agencies that count on camper dollars for revenue.

But like a phoenix, the West’s 2003 camping season is rising from the ashes of ’02, thanks to Howard Oliver. A Littleton, Colo., resident, Oliver has created the Porta Fire, a Forest Service-approved portable campfire that features molded concrete “logs” stacked over a gas burner in a portable metal basin. “It’s basically a dressed-up barbecue grill,” Oliver says of his creation.

Powered by propane, the Porta Fire is a smokeless wonder that looks like a wood fire, but sends up none of the ash and embers that start forest fires.

The device was spawned back in 1996, when a fire ban in Colorado prevented Oliver and his family from lighting their own campfire. A bad-news-bearing ranger suggested Oliver bring a gas grill next time, and the flicker of an idea took hold in Oliver’s head.

After six years of securing patents, checking forest regulations, consulting with state and federal foresters and securing UL approvals, Oliver is now entering his first full season as the West’s camping savior. His timing couldn’t be better.

The West is staring down another dry season, and the Porta Fire is earning endorsements from KOA campground operators, forestry groups and others who watch visitors vanish with every fire ban. “You can’t sit around a Coleman lantern, that just doesn’t make it,” Oliver says, explaining the drop in campers.

This summer, you can sit around a make-believe wood fire and ask yourself the big questions of life: Why do RV campers run their generators all night? Does man need smoke with his fire? Am I becoming less Lewis & Clark and more Martha Stewart and KitchenAid? “Man is a relatively lazy being,” Oliver says. “If he can just turn something on and off, that’s what he’s going to do.”

I close my eyes and imagine the future that Oliver sees: Porta Fires in every fire ring, me returning from the camp host’s trailer with an LP tank instead of a bundle of logs. I hear “Kumbaya” rising up around the oversized Porta Bonfire that Oliver’s now working on.

I see Coloradoans gathered around a special “Terry Barton” Porta Fire, its molded logs replaced with a burning visage of the Forest Service staffer who lit the 137,000-acre Hayman Fire. In Los Alamos, locals ring a similar model with a bust of the genius behind the “controlled” burn in 2000 that burned a good part of the town to the ground.

Jack London’s To Build a Fire survival story will be as anachronistic as songs about people playing vinyl records or making ten-cent phone calls. (“He tried to build a fire with wood, Uncle Marty?”) Eagle Scouts will train on fittings and valves instead of twirled sticks and tinder. “Kindling” will fade from the lexicon and my wife will lose her campground handle of “Lady Pyro.” (“How tall can the Porta Fire flames get?” she asks from the next room, snapping me out of my Porta-future reverie.)

Years from now, the next generation’s campers will never know the joy of moving their chairs around the fire pit all night. (“Your campfires had smoke, Uncle Marty?”)

Of course, there is an upside to the Porta Fire for those with the cash to own one: Fire bans will become moot. Late at night, Jim Beam swirling in my splatter-ware cup, I’ll be able to lean over to my beloved as she gazes into Porta flames: “Babe,” I’ll whisper, “how ’bout I put a few more PSIs of propane in the ol’ inferno?” We’ll get lost in a blaze that fades to black only when the tank runs out. Before slipping into the tent, we’ll lovingly splash each other’s necks with Liquid Smoke for nostalgic effect.

Better still, drought or no drought, this summer you and I might get fired up about sleeping outside. We may dust off the coolers, camp chairs and Kay guitars and go camping. What a gas.

Marty Jones writes and plays music in Denver, Colorado.

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