“If you play with fire, you’re bound to get burned.”–Some Lame-Ass
Sometimes, you just have to howl at the moon, take a shot of Jaeger, and burn a metric ton of wood. Am I right? As the days grow shorter and the nights colder, something in the Bozeman subconscious demands flame. Maybe it’s a vestige of hunter-gatherer impulse; a measure of safety against the unseen jaws and claws in the darkening forest. Maybe it’s a spiritual awakening from our days of pagan ritual and sacrifice. Maybe we’re all just a bunch of dull-eyed pyros muttering absurdities under our collective breath. It doesn’t really matter: fall is a time to burn, baby, burn.
My own appetite for flame is simple: wherever there’s a bonfire, there’s a party. Of course, fire deserves respect, and when it isn’t given, all kinds of bad (but super interesting!) things happen. I’m not talking about the kind of negligence that leads to wildfires, insurance claims, or plastic surgery. No, it’s a more benign, hilarious negligence that mostly leads to shame, embarrassment, and, most importantly, stories that would horrify your mother.
Pallet fires are the best. Broken pallets are free, easy to transport, and they burn hot, fast, and completely. They save saplings and vulnerable branches from the drunken, murderous rampages of hatchet-wielding revelers and eliminate any element of wood gathering “work” from the fire experience. They produce large flames, however, so selecting an appropriate site is critical—far from overhanging trees, grass, or brush.
One fall day, just after the first snow, my friends and I loaded up the trucks with pallets and beer and set up camp at an informal shooting range in Hyalite. After a couple of hours of target shooting, the drinking and burning commenced, and more people showed up. We built the fire near the shooting range, in bare dirt, far from trees or other hazards, and congratulated ourselves on the safe, convenient location. Then the bullets started to fly.
Without warning, the fire erupted into a volley of gunfire and with a collective scream everyone hit the deck, covering their heads with their hands. One guy lost it, jumped in his car and peeled out down the dirt road. In a matter of seconds, the shots stopped, but no one wanted to go check it out, fearing of another round. I was near a five-gallon water jug, so I ran to the fire and doused it before taking cover again. After determining that no one was hurt from our respective hiding places, we chuckled our relief, shouted jokes and cracked beers in the dark as the fire burned out. We discovered that someone had dropped a handful of 9mm bullets in the dirt at some point, where they were hidden until our (awesome) bonfire ignited the gunpowder. Lesson learned: Don’t burn at shooting ranges. Or at least wear Kevlar.
Another time, I was climbing at Revenue Flats when a group of friends showed up to camp and have a fire in the Fishbowl. I was impressed as they dutifully carried pallets up the steep approach, and though I wasn’t planning to camp, I decided to stay for a beer. Just one. As they do, that beer turned into shots of Yukon Jack and I woke up at four in the morning, shivering in the dirt next to a smoldering fire. The temps were in the 20s, and my filthy clothes were singed full of holes from keeping warm by the fire sans sleeping bag. One shoe was missing a sole, which had melted completely off. Lesson learned: bonfires do not replace proper camping attire, and Yukon Jack is the foulest booze on the planet.
Fires are usually social gatherings, so there need only be one jackass to make it a “situation.” At a fire years ago, one such jackass—sadly, a friend of mine who is a serial offender—noticed the “Do Not Incinerate” label on his new can of bug spray. Like any true jackass, he decided to test the theory by chucking it into the fire, where it proceeded to explode (as anticipated), sending shards of aluminum, plastic, and clouds of flaming noxious gas in all directions. Luckily, before he tossed it in, he’d warned us, “Hey, watch this—it’s gonna be awesome!” so we had a chance to run screaming into the woods. Lesson learned: serial jackasses should be bound and gagged around fires. Also, bug spray makes a bitchin’ MacGyver bomb.
At this point, you might be thinking I’m irresponsible. Perhaps even dangerous. You wouldn’t be wrong: I drive without a seatbelt on occasion, I haven’t been to a dentist in years, and I once ran over a housecat. To be fair, it was an accident and the housecat was clearly suicidal. None of these examples have anything to do with fire, however.
Like any competent Western fire-worshipper, whenever I burn, there’s always a fire extinguisher and plenty of water (not to mention gallons of beer) nearby. I also believe strongly in cleaning up. Pallets leave all kinds of detritus behind: nails, tacks, steel strapping. That’s why I bring a shovel and take my mess home with me. But even my well-intentioned efforts at civic responsibility once ended up putting me in hot water.
After a night of revelry at a remote site in the Gallatin Range, during which a fair number of pallets and cases of beer were consumed, I groggily poke-checked the fire in the morning, deemed it completely out and shoveled the whole mess into the bed of my truck. Imagine my surprise halfway down the canyon when the plastic liner in my truck bed caught fire, sending black clouds of smoke billowing. I doused the fire with the last of our water and kept driving, only to have it flare up again, so for the rest of the ride home, my severely hungover roommate sat in the bed and sprayed Diet Coke and Busch Light on the smoldering, stinking bed liner. Lesson learned: a) Bedliners are stupid; b) Use a steel trashcan to clean up your pallet fire; c) Diet Coke emits strange, sugary steam when sprayed on coals.
Have I had a few strange bonfire experiences? I guess. But there have been many, many more nights around the fire that were simply perfect. So whatever your reason—pagan lust, prehistoric compulsion, or pyro leanings—enjoy a fire this fall. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it’ll be a story you can’t tell your mother.
Note: For information on safe burning practices, visit outsidebozeman.com/safety.