Caring for and Healing the Earth

Wilderness Caretaking

Wilderness Fireplace Removal

by Walter Muma

During the summer and early fall of 1998 I had the opportunity, along with a few other Trackers, to practice caretaking skills with regard to wilderness fireplace removal.

To remove or not remove?
Fireplace removal is a caretaking activity that some will debate the usefulness of. On the one hand, removing the fireplaces in an area will hopefully encourage people to not have fires there. Fireplaces generally become rather ugly places, with charcoal, blackened rocks, wood chips, fractured pieces of rocks, unburnt pieces of wood, and garbage in and around the fireplace. In the general area, trees become stripped of burnable branches, and live trees are often cut down. On the other hand, if people are going to have fires in that place anyways, it may be better that there is an existing fireplace for them to use. Generally, I have seen the debate swing to removal side, in order to discourage people from having fires. You must of course evaluate each area on its own as to how much work is necessary. This can range from returning the area to a completely natural state, to doing nothing at all.

Where we did it
One area that we took care of was a lake completely surrounded by Crown Land, near Parry Sound, Ontario. We removed several large fireplaces in various places around the lake. In particular, we removed one on a very small island with very little burnable wood on it. The other area that we worked in was on the Bruce Peninsula, in an area about 2 hours from the nearest road. (For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Ontario, Parry Sound is about 2 hours north of Toronto, and the Bruce Peninsula is about 4 hours northwest from Toronto, on Lake Huron.)

How to
Removing a fireplace involves several steps. First, one removes the rocks that make up the fireplace itself. These are best placed back out of sight in the surrounding forest, well away from the fireplace area, out of sight. Place them gently on the earth to avoid damaging other plants, insects, or other small creatures. Alternatively, one can "bury" them in the water. In either case, the idea is to make it difficult for someone to reconstruct the fireplace. Next, one has to deal with the charcoal left over from the fires. A shovel is very useful in this case. Place the charcoal and partially burnt pieces of wood in the forest, again well away from the fireplace area. Spread it over the landscape so that it is not visible and returns to the earth in the most efficient manner. Along with this, one must remove the various pieces of garbage and carry them out of the wilderness to be disposed of properly, or perhaps recycled when possible.

Once you reach the level of the surrounding soil, you may need to dig down an inch or two, in order to provide room for building up a new layer of soil. The idea here is to make the fireplace area appear as if there had never been a fireplace there. This can be achieved by covering the former fireplace area with soil and debris in the same manner as the immediately surrounding area. Scatter twigs and plant debris about so it looks natural. Possibly even transplant some small plants or mosses to the fireplace area. This is the part of the job that is the most creative, and also takes the most time, care and work. Look over the area carefully to see if what you have done blends in well with the surroundings. Examine it to ensure that the former fireplace area doesn’t stand out in any way, even subtly.

You may also have to do some work in the surrounding area, to remove scars on live trees, carry away firewood that has been piled nearby, dismantle rock "furniture", and so on. Generally, the idea is to return the area to a natural state.

Once you’re done, stand back and admire your work. It is extremely rewarding to see the ugly scar on the Earth completely gone, as if it had never been there at all! If possible, return to the area from time to time to evaluate the usefulness of what you have done. Check if others rebuilt the fireplace, thus indicating that this is a high use area that falls on the other side of the debate (ie, they’re going to have fires anyways no matter what, therefore it’s best to leave the fireplace alone). Or have your efforts been effective and there have been no new fireplaces built, and no fires have been made on the bare ground? Every area and situation has different factors that effect it.


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