Wilderness huts and fire safety

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions
Jouni Laaksonen 25.3.2019

I’ve told about Finland’s great system of open huts throughout our hiking trails and wilderness areas, here and here.

Last week happened a sad accident: Rautulampi day hut in Urho Kekkonen NP was burned down.

Rautulampi is a truly beautiful place, a small lake nested in between treeless fells. The hut was an important shelter both for day hikers walking or skiing from Kiilopää fell centre along a marked trail, and for those on a longer backpacking expedition, and returning from the heart of this vast national park.

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions

Lake Rautulampi (the even white surface down below), and you might be able to see the hut on the right hand shore.

The park administrative has expressed their will to build a new hut to Rautulampi, but so far there’s no knowledge about timetable.

 

How did it burn?

No information is available so far. I myself happened to visit this very hut just a week before the accident. I was skiing from Kiilopää the Rautulampi loop, which offers phenomenally wonderful views. Rautulampi is at the midpoint of the 25 km loop, and I stepped inside the hut to enjoy some sandwiches. There were many of us, marveling at the sunny day, fantastic views along the ski track and the good shelter the hut gave to us.

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions

Rautulampi day hut on 12th March 2019, just a week before it burned down. There were many cross-country skiers having a break at the same time as I visited the hut.

I didn’t notice anything untoward, anything that would have indicated there would be something amiss considering fire safety. The wood oven, smoke pipe and gas cooker looked just normal, though I didn’t especially examine them.
What can we do to prevent fires?

There are hundreds of wilderness huts in Finland. Sometimes one of them burns down, but this is always a rare occasion. In 2018 Opukasjärvi wilderness hut in Kaldoaiwi Wilderness Area burned down. In 2007 Hammaskota open turf hut in Urho Kekkonen NP burned. In 2002 Ansakämppä, popular wilderness hut along Karhunkierros trail burned. In 2001 Karhumorosto wilderness hut burned in Tsarmitunturi Wilderness Area.

The reason for fire in Ansakämppä is known: the smoke pipe leading out from the wood oven was faulty. There were hikers heating the hut with the oven, when suddenly they noticed the roof was on fire. That the pipe is this much faulty is very rare, and there’s not much a hiker can do. Of course if you notice the pipe is very rusty and does not look good, you should avoid lighting a fire, and report to the hut maintenance.

In Karhumorosto there was not a wood oven, but an open fireplace. If you use pine or spruce, there’s always a risk of sparks flying out of the fireplace. Birch does not produce flying sparks, so it is safer. This may have been the reason for the loss of Karhumorosto, but also some other reason may be true.

Anyway, never leave fire alone in an open fireplace. Always keep an eye on it.

Both Ansakämppä, Karhumorosto and Hammaskota have been built anew, by the way. Opukasjärvi not.

Wood ovens are much safer than open fireplaces. However much the firewood might give sparks, they do no harm inside the metallic box. I have no problem leaving a fire going on inside the wood oven when I go to sleep in a wilderness hut, but I wouldn’t leave a fire crackling on an open fireplace when I go to my sleeping bag.

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions

Open fireplace creates a great atmosphere, but it is not as efficient in heating a hut as a wood oven, and there’s a bigger risk of an accident. This pic is not from Karhumorosto, but another wilderness hut.

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions

Typical wood oven (kamiina in Finnish). Note the air ventile on the hatch of the oven. Now it is fully open, and the wood inside the oven burns fast and gives a lot of heat. When the hut starts to be warm, you close the air ventile almost all the way, and the wood starts to burn a lot more slowly.

However, you must understand that prolonged heating, which is often needed in midwinter, makes the wood oven very hot. If you hang some garments to dry too near the oven, they might ignite. Or if you hang something on top of the oven, it might drop on the oven, and ignite.

In 2017 Saarijärvi reservable hut in Käsivarsi Wilderness Area nearly burned down. A reservable hut is a locked hut where you can reserve a bed place in advance. You pay a small amount of money and get the key. Now, in Saarijärvi there is also an unlocked room (=wilderness hut) in the same building. Hikers staying in the wilderness hut smelled smoke and noticed that there is a dangerous situation inside the locked, uninhabited reservable room.

The hikers that had access to the reservable room had stacked firewood right next to the wood oven. Probably the firewood provided in the wood shed was a bit snow-covered or wet, and they had thought to dry it out. So, they had stacked the firewood right next to the oven, ignited the wood oven to heat the hut, and left to do some day skiing in the nearby fells.

The hikers staying in the open room did not have a key so they couldn’t get in. They called 112, and the rescue service drove fast from Kilpisjärvi village, with the key, to save the situation. They got in just time: The firewood stacked next to the oven was already smouldering!

One fire safety issue is candle. There is no electricity in these huts, and candles are used to produce light. A candle is a great tool when used responsibly. However, always place the candle on a non-burnable plate or some such, and never ever leave the candle burning when you go out or go to sleep.

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions

In this wilderness hut there was a ceramic plate for the candle, and I happened to find a piece of reindeer bone that acted perfectly as a candleholder. More often you place the candle on a glass bottle that you found at the hut. In any case, never place the candle on the wooden table, or some other burnable material. You naturally bring your own candles with you.

There’s sometimes also a gas cooker. This is only for preparing food, not for heating the hut! Of course you must not hang anything above the gas cooker either. You naturally switch the gas cooker all the way off when you stop using it (the red arrow), but also remember to close the gas bottle valve (the green arrow) always when you are not using the gas cooker.

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions

To sum this up, fire is a great tool, it gives warmth and light, it dries the clothes and prepares food. But always think ahead and never do anything that could even possibly lead to a large fire.


Short reminder: My book Hiking in Finland – Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions is due to be published in April. I’ve proofread a lot of pages with the final layout, and they look great! The layout process is still unfinished, but the book should be published as planned.

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