Camping out with faux fire can be just dandy

  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 non-alcohol beer and fat-free ice cream.

But like a phoenix rising from its ashes, this summer’s season is getting new life, 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 born back in 1997, 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 has entered another fiery season, and the Porta Fire is earning endorsements from KOA 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.

But 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 "Cumbaya" rising up around that over-sized Porta Bonfire that’s bound to come.

I see Coloradans gathered around a special "Terry Barton" Porta Fire, its molded logs replaced with a burning visage of the hellion behind the Hayman. In Los Alamos, locals ring a similar model with a bust of the genius behind the "controlled" burn that didn’t toe the company line there.

Jack London’s "To Build a Fire" survival story will be as anachronistic as songs about people playing vinyl records or making 10-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 the joy behind her campground handle of "Lady Pyro". ("How tall can the Porta Fire flames get?" she asks from the next room, yanking me back from my Porta future.)

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

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, this summer you and I might get fired up about sleeping outside, and go camping. What a gas.

Marty Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, (, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He writes in Denver.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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