Fire Safety in a Period Camp

By George Rollow
Member, Texian Legacy Association; Texas Certified Firefighter/EMT

This subject is one I feel is addressed too infrequently, but is every bit as important to us as gun safety, historical accuracy, and sanitation: fire safety. This may be dry reading (I hope not) but it does have some useful stuff in it.

We know a lot about this stuff that Joe Public doesnít; iron pans and kettles are hot all over, freshly molded lead balls are hot for a while, cotton burns if lit, and gunpowder and smoking donít mix. While this may seem like common sense to us, Voltaire noticed that "Common sense is not so common". I am reminded at every public event how many "microwave oven and central heat" kids (and adults) have little or no grasp of "fire hot".

We all know that a common cause of death and injury, historically, has been fire. We suffer its effects just like our forefathers. We use fire, as they did, to cook, heat, and light our way. Our shelters and clothing are combustible; we sometimes have our dwellings in or near dry vegetation. Then we go to an event, and do the same but more so.

So what should we do? We all want to go home from the event without a side trip to the hospital (or worse).

We must remember that prevention is our first line of defense. Itís a necessary balance of vigilance and caution. Thereís more on this later; general fire safety is a conversation we all can contribute to. Just because this puts bread on my table doesnít mean I am the only source of knowledge on this. Too many of us can relate the misfortunes of our fellows, but these should be lessons for the rest of us.

Our second line of defense is the water or sand buckets we keep close to our fires for quick (and accurate) action. When the fire starts to get away from where we intend it to be, panicky actions donít help. Fire buckets are handy, and they help present a period camp. Can you imagine a person who lives with fire every day not having at hand some means to control it? Besides, I have known some to heat that water for washing dishes in. Buckets can be tin, copper, leather, wood, or treated canvas. As you know, tin or copper is best if youíre going to heat the water over coals.

In the Nov./Dec. 1999 issue of Muzzleloader Magazine ( www.muzzleloadermag.com ), Tim J. Todish addressed the danger of fire in a period camp. He proposed a third line of defense, the modern extinguisher. While its appearance at a fire is great, its appearance in camp is a glaring anachronism. His proposal is that all camps have an extinguisher covered with a canvas bag and marked with a "universal" logo for quick recognition. The logo accompanying his article is based on American Colonial fire fighting tools, which were common from the middle 1600s until the early 1900s. This makes it appropriate for all of us who fit that period. To quote Mr. Todish, "permission is hereby granted for the free use and reproduction of this logo by all reenactors, buckskinners and other historical interpreters for the purposes described in this article. I have only one request. Please copy the logo as closely as possible using the accompanying illustrationÖ If everyone adds a little bit of their own Ďartistic licenseí, it will defeat the purpose of having one standard, universally recognized symbol for all of us in the hobby."

His suggested "three easy steps":

  1. Select the type and size extinguisher that best meets your personal needs. For those who just want a good general extinguisher, get a UL listed one, rated 2A:10B:C. This is the size commonly recommended for your home kitchen. This is also a good size for most camps. In my area a commercial grade refillable extinguisher this size is about 30 dollars (summer 2002) and weighs 6 to 8 pounds. Mine will do double duty at home and in camp.
  2. Sew up a bottomless white canvas bag that will slip over the fire extinguisher to cover it up but still be easy to remove. (Sew up a bag and turn it upside-down.)
  3. Paint or stencil the logo onto your canvas cover in solid black color so that it stands out and is easily recognizable by anyone who might be called upon to help fight a fire. This logo is at the end of this article.

I also suggest that everyone take a course on fire extinguisher tactics; your local fire department can teach you, or tell you where in your community such classes are offered. Many places also have first aid courses available. Check the costs and talk to your group about these investments. Several groups getting together to take these classes can be social as well as possibly less expensive per person.

Finally, I want to touch on general fire safety. It is much easier to deal with a fire that is just fixiní to get away than one that has gotten out of hand. An adult should monitor fires of any size, from candle to bonfire. Thatís an adult in attitude, not necessarily age. I have met some pretty "adult" 12-year-olds.

Do you check your gear for fire safety? I mean both before and during the event. Also be careful of clothing. Cotton and linen will burn; wool doesnít but is hotter to wear. Consider wool around your legs for safety, using lighter weights in summer. My sources on ladies' attire recommend wool skirts in winter, and wool aprons for summer. And they would like to suggest that "the ladies take turns cooking, especially in summer, due to the stress of being near the fire. This allows the other ladies to keep the children supervised and safe."

Look at your lanterns. Is any of the glass broken? Are lamp wicks and mechanisms in good working order? Is the candle in straight? Are there any plastic parts to be wary of? Remember that Plexiglas windows are plastic windows. They canít stand the heat of a lantern like glass can.

Lanterns and heaters inside the tent mean we are bringing flame into a canvas structure. Make sure there is plenty of room for heat to dissipate. Itís just like at home: "Space heaters need space". Heaters and lanterns should be extinguished before going to sleep.

Keep a safety zone around the fire pit, and keep kids out of that area. Fire pits should be dug to mineral soil, as duff (thatís old grass and leaves) can still burn. Use some of the dirt dug out to cover the grass at the edge of the hole. If digging is not an option, use a metal fire pit. Grills, tripods and other "cooking irons" need to be stable and secure. Cooking fires and bonfires are our largest fires in camp, which means they have a head start... watch them as you would a 3-year-old with a talent for mischief.

If no oneís going to use that fire, put it out. Make sure a fire you put out stays out. Before you leave, make sure the ashes are cold and your dug fire pit is filled back in. Act like you want to be invited back, and replace the sod you took out to dig the pit.

And unless you are through with those body parts you've been using, keep gunpowder far from sparks and flame. No smoking while wearing a powder horn or cartridge bag! Gun safety is a whole article by itself.

My wish for all of us is to come home from every event happy, healthy, and safe.

Hereís the logo mentioned above (scale to fit the size you want, print it out, and cut off the artistís credit):

New as of Oct 2006: You may want to add the following notes:
A complete cover may be ordered from Panther Primitives (pg 61 of their 2005 catalog). www.pantherprimitives.com
A transfer of the logo for your own bag is available from Smoke & Fire listed under Stickers & Transfers www.smoke-fire.com
This is not a recommendation of either company, rather an indication of availability.

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