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Camping stove fire burns homeless man in Cloverdale

December 18, 2016
A type of camping stove which has been known to catch fire and burn its users.

A style of camping stove which has been known to catch fire and burn its users.

A young homeless man has reportedly suffered serious burns from a cooking fire on Sunday, December 18, in the Metro Vancouver municipality of Cloverdale—this while snow was falling across the Metro region and temperatures hovered below freezing.

A CKNW report quotes a Surrey Fire Department official as saying that a crew was dispatched to the area around 55th avenue and 180th street just after noon on Sunday and found a young homeless man in his mid-20s who had suffered second and third degree burns to his left arm and lower face area, apparently caused by his camp stove”.

Beyond referring to a “camp stove”, the report does not provide any more specifics about the exact kind of stove that was being used or how or where it was being used. The Surrey Fire Department official is simply quoted as referring to the general danger of using any kind of heating device or propane tank indoors, or of starting small fires in enclosed areas. The implication, at least, is that the incident was therefore caused by using the stove in an enclosed space.

The CKNW report reminds us that almost 8 years ago to the day, on Friday, December 19th, a homeless woman named Tracey burned to death in downtown Vancouver, when the candles she was using for warmth set fire to her makeshift shelter.

However, CKNW does not suggest that the homeless person in Cloverdale was using the camp stove as a heat source to ward off the cold but only refers to a “cooking fire”.

My limited experience with camping stoves in general as well as the specific one that I currently use, is that they efficiently focus their heat upward and radiate precious little of it outward for my comfort.

In any event, I’m very saddened to hear that this young man was so injured and I sincerely hope that his accident does not result in permanent disfigurement and/or disability. No one should have to pay such a terrible price (or even run the risk) for simply wanting to be able to cook for themselves.

All camp stoves have risks but some are more dangerous than others

The Sterno-brand style of camping stove was recalled in 2010 for risk of fire.

The Sterno-brand style of this camping stove was recalled in 2010 for risk of fire.

In the Fairview back alleys, where I regularly find expended green Coleman propane tanks, used to power barbeque-style stoves, I have also found a number of one- and two-burner hotplate-style camp stoves that run off compressed butane in aerosol cans. These generally look to be in fine shape. However, I will never touch any branded camping stove of this design because too many of them have caught fire and caused burns.

There have also been a few high profile recalls in the U.S. of these hotplate-style butane stoves, including a Kenyon-branded stove in 2001 and a Sterno-branded stove in 2010. Both of these recalls—separated by nearly a decade—were due to the same problem: faulty on/off switches, which led to unexpected explosions of vented butane. And in May of this 2016 the was a recall in Australia of a double burner hotplate-style butane stove, likewise because there was a risk of a gas leak and fire.

Personally I believe that the design of the hotplate-style butane stoves is inherently flawed and I wouldn’t use one that was new from a store, let alone one fished out of a dumpster.

Fact is, that sometimes, when people hear that a product that they own has been the subject of a safety recall they just chuck it out in the garbage, where binners, like myself, and dumpster divers can find it.

I knew of one binner/dumpster diver several years ago who was carting around one of these dodgy hotplate-style butane stoves but I don’t believe that he ever bought butane for it and tried to use it—he’s still alive at least.

It has to be said though that all of the various camp stoves, regardless of their design, are potentially dangerous, simply because they all use some kind of flammable gas, such as butane, propane, or white gas (naptha).

All devices employing pressurized flammable gas pose safety risks if they fail somehow. And the flammable gases themselves can constitute an extra safety risk in enclosed spaces—both from explosive detonation of concentrations of unburned gas as well as from inhalation of concentrations of carbon monoxide given off by combustion.

At the same time it is also true, I believe, that the better made camping/backpacking stoves—when they are used properly and in good working order—are not inherently dangerous. These stoves are time-tested designs based on decades of back country use, embodying optimum performance and safety.

Some food for though about homelessness and cooking

Being homeless has opened my eyes to a patent absurdity of the market economy that I live in, namely that it costs a person many hundreds of dollars a month, in housing and electricity costs just to heat up water. Really, think about it.

In my experience, having steady access to nothing more than a microwave, to heat up water, or soup, or whatever, can substantially improve a homeless person’s diet. And in this regard it has always impressed me that the Go Green Bottle depot at Ontario Street and 7th Avenue—alone of all the depots that I know of—has always made a microwave available to its clientele, which are largely the poorly-housed as well as the completely unhoused.

But access to microwaves here and there cannot hold a candle to the ownership of a small, inexpensive-to-use camping stove. Such stoves can really empower a homeless person to both substantially cut their food costs and increase the amount and the quality of what they eat.

To be blunt, not being able to cook for one’s self makes being homeless either stupidly expensive or extra demeaning. Either you have to eat exorbitantly expensive restaurant meals and packaged small-portion store-bought food or you have to eat whatever charities choose to offer you, when and where they choose to offer it.

This can be a bit galling to homeless people, especially when they begin to learn of the steady sources of fresh food that residents and restaurants discard and that they could be eating—in lui of, or in addition to fast food fare—if only they had the simple ability to boil water.

I have heard of homeless people cannibalizing parts from large propane-powered barbecues, in order to jerry-rig their own cooking apparatus but this is not something that I’ve ever thought of trying because, well, see the beginning of this post.

Instead, I have recently begun using a so-called canister stove—following a route espoused by some long-time homeless people who’s judgement I respect.

My camping stove and my routine for using it

First use of the MSR stove to boil water for instant noodles.

Using my MSR canister stove to boil water for instant noodles.

The specific model of camping/backpacking stove that I have is a Mountain Survival Reasearch (MSR) Pocket Rocket (the model without the peizo-electric starter). This is a wonderfully small brass and steel device that is extremely easy to use. It runs off canisters containing a pressurized mix of mostly butane, with some propane and Isobutane.

My understanding has been that butane-powered stoves are at less risk of flash fires because butane dissipates quicker than propane. I have repeatedly read that the greatest failing of butane-fueled canister stoves is that they have trouble operating at all in extremely cold weather (unlike the naptha gas stoves, which are trickier to operate) and that the performance of canister stoves further suffers in windy conditions.

Outfitters like MEC sell windscreens for the canister stoves that they sell but there are warnings that surrounding these stoves with a windscreen can cause the canister to heat up and potentially explode.

As it is, I see no need to ever shield my canister stove, except on its windward side. I have done this in the parkade where I use the stove simply by positioning it out of the wind near a concrete pillar and not near me.

Before I acquired the stove (or rather, before one of my kind Twitter followers acquired it for me) I determined that I would never keep extra fuel canisters in my storage locker; instead, I keep them in a locked compartment on my bicycle trailer.

And so far, I have curbed my natural inclination to add a peizo-electric starter of my own devising. If I do, hopefully people will not read about it first on CKNW‘s website. Click the images to enlarge them.

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From → Personal

6 Comments
  1. This is awful 😞

  2. The fire in Langley is a tragedy, I am glad that there was no death. Having been homeless myself, I can relate to doing things that most people would consider as “sketchy”.

    I am consistently impressed by the continuing ingenuity and adaptability that human beings can exhibit.

    I truly enjoy reading your posts.

  3. Slowcrow permalink

    A sturdy campstove, paired with a small pressure cooker, IS truly freedom!! In SO many ways! But it removes a person from the total dependence on the feeding stations, and is therefore VERY disapproved by persons wanting that total dependence as a sure fire means of control!!! (In my opinion😀). STOVES FOR ALL!! ( But NOT as a heat source!) 😀 Great observations and post!!!

    • The pressure cooker is something I have not thought off. I should look into getting a small one. Thanks. Interesting thing that I’ve been researching, following getting the stove are thermoelectric generators (TEGs), which generate electricity from heat (as from a camp stove), like this Powerpot X 10 Watt generator. Wow, right?. Where does “homeless” and “off-grid” intersect?

      • Slowcrow permalink

        Pressure cookers can be very dangerous. Never drop or bang them. Big time explosion of hot stuff very possible!! That little butane stove is designed for quick stir fries, etc. Stove was likely misused, and do malfunction in cold weather. Can’t beat propane for cooking outside in a blizzard I tell ya!!

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