Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 02 September 2015



I always say that "everything will happen to you on the trail if you are on the trail long enough."

I've added another "happening" that was harrowing but informative. I frigging caught on fire. Let me set the scene.

I was determined to collect solid info to precisely lay out the TYT route through the Upper Clarks Fork Headwaters Bowl. I hiked North from Saint Marys Pass Trailhead to the upper Clarks Fork Ford, and made camp.

I set up my old MSR XGK II white gas stove and began boiling water for hot drinks and dinner. I was screwing around when I noticed the stove and the area around it were on fire. Not Good.

I always have a plan. I went for the gallon water jug. Water will not put out white gas, but a circle of water around the fire will retard its spread until I can deal with it. First, I had to squelch the flow of gas, which means turning off the burning stove.

Circling the ring of fire with water and turning off the stove left me with fire-fighting duty. The only good "suppression" tool I had was my rolled-up Ridgecrest closed-cell foam pad. As I came in to suppress the fire with the pad I found the leak.

Though turned off, the remaining pressure in the stove shot out  a thin jet of flaming liquid   parallel with the ground  from 18 to 24 inches from the stove head, across my foot and right to the base of the flank of my tent.

My foot, leg, and tent all instantly went up in flames.

"Ah, shit," said  I, as I saw my gear, me, the whole trip, and the forest all going up in flames in my mind's eye. The plan modified instantly.

My fleece pants and shoe were burning slowly, the stove and the terrain around it moderately, the tent quickly. I instantly moved to the now flaming flank of the tent  with my rolled-up foam sleeping pad, rolling it up and down on the outside of the tent, just catching and squelshing the fire before it swept across the nylon tent. I caught it before it went up like rice paper.

Try putting out nylon. I am amazed I got it out instantly, or I would have lost it. I was, and am amazed that I still have a tent at all.
Below is the scene the next morning, after I had installed a garbage bag between the fly and inner tent to restore full protection.

Backpacking tent fire damage.

While putting out the tent my personal fire had progressed  up my leg, and to the end of my shoe. The next stage of the plan came quickly into view.

I instantly threw myself on the ground and began rolling myself around as soon as I had rolled up the last flame on the tent. I was actually trying to push my foot into the ground and bury it at the same time as I was flopping and spinning. After the first couple of rolls I had suppressed the fleece fire running up the leg, but the frigging synthetics of the shoe had really caught up. Thank god the shoes and fleece were thick and burned slow.

I would have been in trouble if my nylon pants had caught up on fire without the protection of the thick fleece pants retarding the fire. The fleece burned on the outside first. The thin nylon materials melt onto the skin when they burn.

Fire damaged backpacking camp shoe.

Getting my camp shoe out brought me back to my feet, with a "whew," sort of look on my face, while looking at my not-quite burned up site, watching the next priority of my rotating priority plan shift from putting myself out to putting out the remaining small fire around the stove, when I felt the distinct  burning pain that indicated I was not "out," but that my friggging ass was still on fire!

The look on my face at that moment must have been priceless. It was the look of a dude who just realised his ass is on fire. A Classic, I assure you. My leg fire had spread to my ass, unknown to me. I found out quickly.

My plan instantly shifted back to putting myself out. The ass fire had been burning unabated for a while.

I plopped back down on my ass, and began grinding it into the dirt. Whew. I then put out the fading fire around the stove, and "assessed" the damage. Tent badly damaged, but repairable.

Fire hole burned into my nice old backpacking tent.

My fleece pants had turned into ugly burned fleece leggings, after losing the whole ass. They would still keep my legs warm at night.

I cut the laces on the camp shoes as best I could to preserve as much usable lace length as possible, but I could relace burned lace with paracord.

The cinch strap for rolling up my sleeping pad was almost melted through, so I made another one as a backup out of paracord. The surface of the sleeping pad took some smearing-melted damage, its fancy cinch-strap webbing about melted through, but the pad was substantially unaffected.

That sleeping pad acts as a seat, backrest, and footstool on the trail and in camp. Now it rose up as a fire suppression tool, too! It was my favorite piece of gear that night, and moved way up on my "favorite" piece of gear list after I used it to douse the tent and stove fires.
 My sleeping pad was the unexpected hero of this trip.

I had a small bad burn on the upper thigh below the L ass cheek, bigger than a dime and smaller than a quarter, not bad at all for the nature of the threat.

The next day I dis and reassembled the stove, and found nothing wrong. I figure the jet was not properly seated, despite looking good, and appearing tight. I believe the jet was "false" tight, caught on a bur in the metal.

MSR-XGK-II backpacking stove after the fire disassembly.

Below we can see how the heat melted and deformed the pump shaft, so I had to carve it a bit to restore the shaft clearance moving in the pump body,

Fire damaged MSR-XGK-II backpacking stove pump.

My Right camp shoe laces were melted into a Gordian Knot, and the shoe's body style heavily modified my melting and burning. These are now "customized" campshoes. Must be worth thousands...haha.

Lessons Learned:

1> Never use a "light" screwdriver or the sheet metal MSR wrench to tighten jet in stove body. ALWAYS use a heavy tool that will push through friction and burs to seat the jet properly and firmly.

2> Always point the opening in the stove body and wind screen AWAY from tent and other gear. We want to keep fuel and fire contained within the stove body and surrounding windscreen If a fuel leak develops, especially a pressurized leak.

3> Add "internal" fire plan to "external" fire plan. I always have a plan for dealing with surrounding or approaching forest fires. At best it moves us away from, and out of the path of the fire. At worse it drops pack and runs for it.
Now I have seen the need for a personal fire plan, if I myself catch on fire.

4> Food for Thought: Fear the synthetics. Modern backpacker clothing goes up in flames like balsa wood. During my personal fire I was worried about melting nylon onto skin, which would have been a real disaster. I carry a Domboro burn treatment in my first aid kit for that reason. This reminds us to balance our first aid kits for the threats we face.

Just thinking out loud...

Butterfly Bandaids


Joint wraps: Ace Style

Spend long enough on the trail...

Gear/First Aid

I was stunned by my lack of fire suppression gear. I had never though about how to put out my tent until I was looking at it burning.
 My water and sleeping systems thankfully provided two instant attack vectors, being smothering and drowning. A blow-up mattress and no controllable bulk water supply would have left me with few options.

Alex's Backpacking Water System

One Hell of a Backpacking Trip
Two days before I caught the snow and hail that came through on July 9-10 of 2015. Then I caught on fire. Call it the Fire and Ice Trip of 2015.


End Result

"Gear with Character"

Tent repaired from fire damage & back in the field. 

It was a sewing experiment that worked out fine, if it looks a bit funny. The fly does not leak, nor pool water, as all the folds run-off. I took the oppertunity to fix up the skeeter netting sections of the main tent body that were fraying, too, as well as the burned parts.

Backpacking tent fire and fraying damage on skeeter netting repaired.




Also See

High Sierra Fire and Smoke Information


All Mountain Safety Topics

All Mountain Safety News


Current High Sierra Hazards





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