It wasn't even one in the morning when Lynne needed to get up for a bathroom break. While she was up she enjoyed a moment to look at the warm glow coming from the ceramic heater, but as she watched the pilot light on the heater sputtered and the flame front across the ceramic element rippled in a most uncharacteristic way.
Then it went out.
Mankind did not "invent" fire. Fire is a part of the natural world, and it's been around since mankind first stood upright and walked. Early man idolized fire, and worshiped or feared both fire gods and fire demons throughout his history.
Fire is a natural part of Yellowstone National Park, too. In 1988, following a damp and rainy spring season that fostered lots of early season plant growth, Yellowstone was in the grip of a drought, the driest summer in the region's recorded history, but there was nothing to indicate that this particular summer would be any different from the last 125 summer seasons since the park's inception.
By mid-June, 20 fires with natural origins had started in Yellowstone National Park. In keeping with park policy, all of them were allowed to burn and follow their natural course. More than half of these fires ran their course and burned themselves out, and the remaining nine were being closely monitored.
Then, on June 15 the storms came. Dry lightning ignited dozens of spot fires within the park's borders. The abundant, now dry vegetation was ready to burn and within a single week the number of acres burned within Yellowstone increased one-hundred fold, and the fires did not go out. Fanned by high winds, the fires expanded and the largest and most expensive fire fighting effort in the history of mankind began. Yet mankind's efforts and energy were no match for the flames nature had started. They continued to burn. August 20th was the worst day of the fire. High winds whipped the fire into a frenzy that consumed 120,000 acres of Yellowstone park, and the park continued to burn until more than a third of the park, 800,000 acres went up.
All man's efforts were puny in the face of Nature's fury. She started this fire and only she would put it out. On September 11th it rained.
It is September 9th, twenty years after the great fire and it is 1:00 AM . The sky over Yellowstone is dry and clear, and my ancient, long dead ancestors are laughing at me. All of them. Even the dour one who barely crack a smile when someone slips on a banana peel.
They laugh because sitting before them, naked on his haunches in a camper-trailer, their descendant and pinnacle of their combined evolutionary effort is trying to make fire in Yellowstone Park. Despite having tools they never dreamed of like matches, push-button ignition, and "Aim-n-Flame" trigger-pull butane lighters, things are not going well.
I have no idea why the Portable Buddy heater is acting up this way. It doesn't act like there's a lack of oxygen
for the flame to burn with. If that were the case my ancestors would probably laugh uproariously, high-five one another and welcome me to the party, but just to be sure I've opened a window so that lots of fresh, oxygen-rich, twenty degree air can rush into the trailer.
"Go outside! You have wood!" they laugh.
It's an odd problem. I can light
the heater's pilot, but instead of burning a demur little pilot-light flame, the pilot ignites a furious jet of propane
that doesn't even start to burn until it's half an inch past the thermocouple that controls the flow of gas to the heater.
A thermocouple is a device that makes electricity when it gets hot. All gas heaters with pilot lights
have thermocouples as part of their safety system. It works like this: a demur little pilot light
flame heats the thermocouple, which makes electricity that keeps the gas valve open so gas can flow to the demure little pilot light flame. So the thermocouple is part of a safety system that makes sure the propane
the heater puts out is actually being burned, not venting into the air and creating an explosive fire hazard.
The usual lighting
sequence for the Portable Buddy goes like this: You rotate the control knob to the "Pilot" position and push it down to start the flow of gas, then push the ignition button. The pilot light then glows demurely, heats the thermocouple and after a few seconds you can release the control knob and the pilot will stay lit. My problem right now is the flame isn't getting the thermocouple hot, so when I release the control valve, the pilot torch goes out.
The really maddening thing is the heater was working earlier that evening. It turned out that this was to be a chronic problem: The heater would ignite normally, then after an hour or two of making lovely heat for the trailer, it would go out. I can only speculate that something inside the heater that starts out cool gets warmed by the heater, then somehow starts blasting propane
through the pilot jet. Once this happens the jet of propane is blowing too hard to burn in its customary location, and ignites well past the thermocouple. The thermocouple cools, and the gas shuts off.
The really important thing right now is I haven't figured this pattern of behavior out yet. So, after twenty-degree air has been spilling through an open window for twenty minutes both I and the heater have cooled down a bit, and the pilot light finally ignites and stays lit. It is at this point that the primitive, naked man rises from his creation of fire and raises his fist in celebration. I may have made goose-flesh in the 20-degree breeze, but I have been rewarded. I have made fire.
A warm, cheery red glow emanates from the Portable Buddy heater as I head back to bed, heedless of the chuckling sound my dour old ancestor seems to be making. Everyone else in the gallery is rolling on the floor.