Charcoal heater kills campers

Posted: Monday, June 04, 2001

FAIRBANKS -- Alaska State Troopers have identified the two Fairbanks men apparently asphyxiated by burning charcoal inside a tent.

Robert Messer, 36, and Michael James Burnett, 27, were found dead in their sleeping bags Thursday.

The men were reported overdue from a camping trip late Wednesday. Troopers used a helicopter to locate their truck and tent the next day at around 7:30 p.m. at Ketchem Creek, about 2.5 miles from Circle Hot Springs Resort.

Troopers speculated the men had been dead for three days. The men had set out from Fairbanks on May 26 and were due to return the following day.

A small mixed-breed dog found inside the tent was still alive, though it was ill.

The men were camped in a former Bureau of Land Management campground that is no longer maintained. Inside the tent, troopers discovered a small charcoal grill, which was evidently being used as a heat source.

"It was a 14-inch Weber charcoal grill," said Sgt. Ron Wall. "They had obviously used it for cooking outside and it appears the stove was most likely taken inside for heat."

Troopers said such stoves have the effect of a car running in a garage.

"People think tents breathe but they just don't," said trooper information officer Greg Wilkinson.

Using charcoal made the situation worse.

"Charcoal doesn't always give off the odor you get from other combustibles," Wall said.

The best policy regarding stoves in tents, according to John Beers at Mountain Sports in Fairbanks, is "no stoves, period."

"There are times when you need to when you're winter camping, but you always need to be conscious of ventilation," Beers said. "I don't believe in tent heaters, either.

"There are deaths every year from things like this," he said. "It's just not a good idea."

The deaths were the second and third asphyxiation in the Interior in the past year involving stoves or heaters in tents.

An Iowa moose hunter was found dead in his tent near Tok less than a year ago after he went to sleep with a propane heater on.

Campers and climbers often take stoves into tents, Beers said.

"You look in any climbing magazine and you're going to see a half dozen pictures of guys sitting in their tents around stoves," he said.

It doesn't matter whether it's a charcoal grill, propane heater or gas stove, anything that burns is deadly.

"They're all going to consume oxygen," Beers said. "Everything that burns is going to consume oxygen."

They also pose a fire risk.

"They can flare and melt the tent around you," Beers said.

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