From a newspaper article:
The U.S. Attorney's Office ... announced that Fort Collins resident [individual's name withheld] has been cited for causing timber to burn without a permit. [The individual] is accused of starting the fire on Monday, when a stove he was using while camping along the Hewlett Gulch Trail lit the blaze. The stove was a small, backpacking-style stove that burns alcohol. [emphasis added]First, let me lay my bias out on the table: I like alcohol stoves. I like that they're ultra light. I like that they're simple to use. I like that there's very little on them that can go wrong. I like that they typically burn cleanly and have very little (if any) smell. I like that they're essentially silent. I like that I can buy fuel in bulk. All my "go to" set ups for solo backcountry travel are alcohol based.
|A Trail Designs Ti-Tri Sidewinder with an alcohol stove, one of my favorite UL cooking set ups.|
So, first issue: Are alcohol stoves safe? I mean is the fire shown in the video above just a fluke?
I think it depends a bit on the design of the stove. I've personally never used a "tippy" or unstable alcohol stove -- but not all alcohol stoves are equally stable and safe. Note: An alcohol stove that uses an absorbent wicking material (e.g. carbon felt or similar) would probably be safer, depending on how much alcohol was added to the stove.
I'm always very careful about how I use a stove. I've never felt like I was endangering the forest (that I love), but realistically not everyone is as careful, and, even if I'm careful, no amount of care is ever 100%. What if I knock it over? What if a strong gust of wind tips it over? Flaming alcohol everywhere. Sometimes I'll use a full ounce (~30ml) of alcohol at a time. If spilled, that could spread over an area that I might not be able to extinguish. Some fellow hikers have challenged me on the safety of alcohol stoves. I have to admit that I don't have a good rebuttal.
There's another hazard besides simple spilling: refueling. The flames of alcohol typically cannot be seen during daylight hours. Stories abound of people trying to refuel a stove that they thought was no longer burning only to have huge flames burst out as they poured alcohol into a burning stove. And where does that now flaming container go when things catch fire? Most of us would drop it or throw it, which could be a real disaster. Always feel for heat with your naked hand before refueling an alcohol stove. Do NOT depend on being able to see the flames. See also this cautionary video:
Are alcohol stoves permitted?
Now, the second issue: Are alcohol stoves permitted?
From the Sequoia National Forest website:
Allowed are: lanterns and portable stoves using gas, jellied petroleum, or pressurized liquid fuel outside of developed recreation sites or campgrounds, but only with a valid California Campfire Permit (available free of charge).Other National Forests in California say essentially the same thing, and in speaking with others around the western United States, these seem to be pretty much the standard rules. In other words, alcohol stoves are generally not permitted in National Forests in the western US. Note: Always check with the particular land management agency for the area you wish to visit; there are always exceptions to general rules.
So, canister gas, pressurized liquid fuel, and jellied "petroleum" are allowed, but typical liquid alcohol stoves are not. By "jellied petroleum," they mean Sterno which is actually jellied alcohol not jellied petroleum. In other words, non-liquid alcohol stoves are allowed. See also Appendix I, Jellied Petroleum, below.
Is ESBIT safe?
ESBIT on the other hand cannot spill and cannot spread. ESBIT does not emit sparks or embers that can float off and create a spot fire. ESBIT does not smolder and then burst back into flame. Moreover, ESBIT can blown out easily by mouth, much as one might blow out a candle. I'm not enthralled by the smell of ESBIT, nor do I like the sticky residue it leaves on the bottom of my pot, but absent information to the contrary, I'd have to say that ESBIT is the safer alternative to alcohol for ultralight cooking set ups.
|Burning ESBIT in an ultralight cooking set up|
Now, is it permitted? Well, I guess a strict reading of USFS websites might lead one to conclude "no." However, I feel it is in the same class as jellied "petroleum" (see Appendix I, below). ESBIT is a fuel that has a) been chemically rendered incapable of spilling and b) can be readily extinguished -- just as easily as a can of Sterno with it's lid. It's a bit unclear whether the Forest Service is a) just unaware of ESBIT type fuels b) actually intends to ban ESBIT, or c) permits ESBIT since it has the appropriate characteristics (cannot spill and can be readily extinguished). From a technical perspective, ESBIT is certainly at least as safe as a white gasoline stove and in many ways is safer. I think there's a bit of gray area here and that the Forest Service should either state outright that ESBIT is banned and why or should state explicitly that it is permitted. For now, in keeping with the spirit of the regulations, I believe that ESBIT is generally permitted.
I admit that I dislike the ban on alcohol stoves but, grudgingly, I'm getting won over, particularly in times of high fire danger. And ESBIT seems pretty rock solid safe.
The websites of the various National Forests of the western United States are a textbook example of poor writing. There is a profound lack of clarity on the topic of fire regulations, which I find somewhat shocking since fire is a subject of great importance. What I've done is to visit a number of National Forest websites. Only in the aggregate do they start to make sense. I've quoted the Sequoia National Forest website above since it is one of the clearest. I believe that I have faithfully rendered the the "spirit of the law" in the above blog post, but there is some room for question. In the final analysis, the United Forest Service isn't very clear about exactly what the regulations are. You should always consult directly the land management agency for the area(s) you intend to visit and use a stove. I do have a general summary listed in Appendix II, below.
Thanks for joining me on the journey,
Appendix I -- Jellied "Petroleum"
All of the Forest Service websites seem to talk about "jellied petroleum." Jellied petroleum is commonly known as napalm and is used with great effect as a weapon of war; flame throwers use jellied petroleum. There are no known examples of backpacking type stoves that use jellied petroleum. So what is the Forest Service talking about? Let's look at the San Bernardino National Forest's website which has a helpful FAQ section:
Why are jelly petroleum-fueled stoves okay and campfires aren’t?Looking at the above and at other National Forest websites, it becomes clear that they mean Sterno type fuel, which is jellied alcohol not jellied petroleum.
Gas, liquid, and jelly petroleum-fueled stoves can be extinguished by turning off the fuel source to the stove. Jelly petroleum-fueled stoves can be extinguished by putting a metal lid over the container. This makes their use much safer than campfires. Ashes or hot briquettes can blow outside of the fire pit; these embers can easily start a wildfire. Also, visitors might discard ashes or hot charcoal briquettes before they are completely cool, which could cause vegetation to ignite later after they are gone. Wood, charcoal, or any solid fuel fires are not allowed within the San Bernardino National Forest outside developed campgrounds, picnic areas, yellow post sites, and special use permitted sites in agency-provided fire rings or designated sites at any time of the year. [emphasis added]
The Cleveland National Forest's web page on Wilderness areas is even more explicit, mentioning the Sterno brand by name:
Campfire, barbecue or hibachi use is not allowed. Propane or sterno fuel stoves are allowed. [emphasis added]Notice that the above only mentions propane and sterno. Does this mean that butane stoves are illegal? How about white gasoline? Kerosene? This is what I mean when I say there is a profound lack of clarity on the topic of fire regulations. Again, one must take the various National Forest websites in the aggregate in order to make sense of them.
Appendix II -- Key Regulations Summary
As I mentioned in my concluding remarks, above, I've visited quite a number of National Forest websites. If one reads enough of them, in the aggregate, they begin to make sense. Regulations vary some forest to forest, but generally the below are true. These regulations are from California National Forests, but regulations in other western National Forests are similar.
- Backpacking stoves (of any type) are considered by the US Forest Service to be a form of campfire.
- In the state of California, a California Campfire Permit is generally required in order to operate a backpacking stove. In some areas, a Wilderness Permit is acceptable in lieu of a Campfire Permit.
- Pressurized liquid petroleum stoves with a on/off device or valve are generally permitted. Example: An MSR Whisperlite stove is permitted
- Canister gas stoves with an on/off device or valve are generally permitted. Example: A Snow Peak Gigapower stove is permitted.
- Jellied alcohol stoves are generally permitted. Example: A Sterno stove is permitted. ESBIT type fuel is not mentioned. From a technical perspective it has the same characteristics as Sterno (cannot spill and can be easily extinguished), but ESBIT is a bit of a gray area. I believe ESBIT is in keeping with the spirit of the regulations. Ask any two different rangers and you'll probably get two different opinions. At the very least, it's safe from a technical perspective and won't start a wildfire.
- Liquid alcohol stoves are generally NOT permitted. They probably are permitted where wood fires are already permitted, but the National Forest websites aren't particularly clear on this point.
- Wood stoves are generally NOT permitted except where wood fires are already permitted.
Appendix III -- Other Fire Regulations
- From the Mendocino National Forest website: "Permits must be signed by an adult eighteen years of age or older." Apparently, fires are prohibited unless a permitted adult is present.
- From the Angeles National Forest: "During high fire danger, additional fire restrictions may be imposed. Before your visit, check with a local Forest Service office for current fire restriction information."
- From multiple National Forests: "Clear all vegetation in a five foot radius" and "a shovel is required to be present." How much the shovel regulation is enforced in backcountry areas is subject to question. My assumption is that a potty trowel will be sufficient. A five foot radius seems a bit excessive for a backpacking stove and is hardly a "Leave no trace" practice, but that's what the regulations call for.