By Jamie Cole
In 1993 (when I was in my early 20s) a friend and I made a mid-winter tramp into the old Nina Hut off the Lewis Pass.
Except for a swampy patch 3/4 the way there, the ground was completely hard-frozen the entire way. It was cold.
At the hut we found all the firewood was frozen to the core.
The firelighting newspaper we removed from our packs became damp within minutes. In order to light a fire I had to start by splitting firewood into matchstick-sized pieces and dry them out in my cooker! I made dozens of very small pieces of kindling and so on up to the split logs. It took hours to get a self-sustaining fire established in the woodburner. Damp firewood got loaded into the top of the fire box and dried out as it burnt down toward the base – we weren’t getting a lot of heat from it. To get ahead of the drying process, I stacked the firewood all around the outside of the woodburner. By evening the system was working well; the firewood half-dried on the outside before being loaded into the firebox. My friend and a European couple that had arrived at the hut late that afternoon were happy with the efforts I’d put in.
I stocked up the fire before bed and it was then lights out. As an inexperienced 20-something year old, I was clueless as to the danger I’d just put us in. At around four in the morning, despite being well asleep, my nose alerted me to something very wrong. I sprang out of bed, grabbed my torch and found a number of the logs stacked around the woodburner were smouldering, some were even glowing! We were mere moments away from the hut catching fire. Suffice it to say the firewood was hastily unstacked, glowing bits extinguished and I swore never to repeat this stupidity again.
FMC thanks Jamie for being willing to share this cautionary tale so that others might learn. The backcountry loses on average about one hut a year to fire. These shelters from the storm are too precious to lose from carelessness: let’s do our bit to share stories like this — especially to folks new to the backcountry — in an effort to keep these wee bits of heritage intact for all the outdoor community.
If you’ve got a story of a near miss with fire in the backcountry, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.