A camping trip without fire is as pointless as non-alcohol beer and Boca burgers.
Howard Oliver learned that hard lesson back in 1996, when a fire ban at a Colorado campground extinguished his family's plans for campfire cooking. To ensure that no one else finds such a damper put on his outdoor fun, Oliver -- a former heating and air-conditioning mechanic -- invented the Porta Fire, a U.S. Forest Service-approved, propane-fueled faux campfire that can easily be toted in and out of the back country.
"You can't sit around a Coleman lantern all night; that doesn't cut it," Oliver says, as four of his creations roar behind him at Sloan's Lake.
The Porta Fire is a 29-pound, self-contained canister -- a tad smaller than a five-gallon bucket -- that runs off any propane tank. It features a molded, high-density concrete tepee of "logs" set over a gas burner straight from a home gas grill; a metal ring mounted around the artificial timbers supports a cooking grate. "It's basically a dressed-up barbecue grill," Oliver explains. It's also a mobile gas fireplace that even Smokey Bear could love.
To demonstrate the Porta Fire's cooking ability, Oliver slaps a few shish kabobs and hot dogs on the grills. Cooking over an open flame "is sort of a primordial thing," notes Oliver's marketing man, Jamie Mitchell. "In your mind, you're not really roughing it or camping if you're not cooking over a real fire. Or something that gives the perception of a real fire."
The Porta Fire retails for $299, as does its bigger sibling, the Porta Fire II. Oliver also manufactured two at-home models -- the Patio Fire and the 32-inch Perma Fire -- and is testing a Porta Bonfire. "You can see that baby from space," he says. "It's got a half-million- BTU burner in it."
As the kabobs cook, a pair of joggers trot by and check out the Porta Fire family. A park staffer drifts over and ogles the glorified gas grills. "I'd like to have one of those," he says.
"That's the typical response we get when we display them," Oliver observes.
When the grub's done, it's what you'd expect from a gas grill: tasty, nicely charred fare that looks good and grilled -- but lacks the smoked flavor of wood-fired meats. That flavor tradeoff is more than fair if the alternative is a "ruined camping trip," Oliver points out.
The spark behind Porta Fire was ignited seven years ago, when Oliver and his family were setting up in a campground in the hills west of their home in Littleton. A park ranger stopped by to inform them that a fire ban was in place; the ranger suggested that next time they bring a gas grill, because gas grills are exempt from virtually all fire bans. But Oliver decided to go one better and invent his own gas campfire. The next six years were consumed by investigating patents, experimenting with gas-grill components and consulting with state and federal foresters. Oliver invested both time and money and gained the allegiance of a team of friends who believed in his idea.
Last year Oliver secured Forest Service and Underwriters Laboratories Inc. approvals for his brainchild. This year, he's launched his first full season as a campground Prometheus. And after last year's scorched-earth summer, his Porta Fire is winning fans, everybody from Forest Service folks to Senator Wayne Allard, who watched a demo in his office. They're all big on Porta Fire's safety features, as well as its ability to keep campers coming to the woods even during fire bans. According to the Forest Service's Pam DeVore, attendance and revenues at state campgrounds drop by 50 percent when fire bans are in effect.
Last summer, Oliver's Porta Fire II made him the king of a Continental Divide campground. With fires banned, visitors from twenty surrounding sites took turns heating water for coffee on his unit. "We had thirteen coffeepots on at one time," says Oliver. That's a feat no Coleman stove could duplicate.
And because there's no smoke from a Porta Fire, campers don't even have to worry about watery eyes as they gaze at the campfire. But can a fake fire be as hypnotic to watch as the real thing? "Oh, yeah," says marketer Mitchell, who has a Perma Fire on his back patio. (The fires don't heat the surface below them.) "By the end of the night, everybody is in a circle around the fire, staring into it, talking. The conversations go into the deep, philosophical, campfire conversations."
With recent rains greening up the state, most of Colorado's fire bans have been lifted -- but Oliver and company aren't worried about cooling demand for the Porta Fire line. "Man is still a lazy creature," Oliver says. "If he can just flick a switch and turn something on or off and have basically the same features, that's what he's going to do."
Albertsons stores along the Front Range are currently stocking Porta Fire and Porta Fire II. In California, outfitters are hauling the portable gas fires above the tree line for camping and hunting groups. Oliver is also selling the units over the Web (www.safefire.com) and marketing them directly to campgrounds. If those facilities replaced their old-school campfire rings with cleaner-burning, no-restriction gas campfires, they could enjoy red-hot business no matter how dry the weather, he points out. Instead of selling bundles of wood, the campground host could sell gas and keep the home fires burning bright.
"Chatfield alone has 1,200 campsites," Oliver says, gazing into a Porta Fire. "If they bought 1,200 units at, say, $599, that's a chunk of change from one little lake in just one state." His invention has the potential to gross a couple million in sales in every state, he predicts, and bring in still more from European sales.
Such projections are already fueling dreams of retirement. "In the next two or three years, I'm gonna just sit around in Hawaii," Oliver declares. "You betcha. All from that one camping trip and that ranger telling me, 'You can't have a fire.'"
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.