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Friday, February 14, 2014

Guest Post: Fire Building Basics

by Scott Bascom

Editor's Note:  Due to allergies, Erin Palette suffers from frequent, often crippling, headaches. When this happens she isn't good for much, sometimes for 24 hours after the fact. One such happened yesterday and she is still feeling wrung-out. Because of this, she is posting a guest article.

So, you want to eat food that's been cooked.

Things have collapsed, and you have trouble finding fuel to run a camp stove. UN troops are roaming the streets, and zombies are picking them off one by one. Or perhaps you just want to go out and camp, and you figure that your Chef Boyardee is better warmed up than not. Or it's late at night, you are cold, and you would like to warm up. You are in the middle of nowhere.


Fire is important and useful.

So many people think about the potential uses of all sorts of gizmos come the end of the world. But a lot of people forget that you have to know how to use them.

One of the most basic tools that humanity has developed, and has kept in its toolbox over the years, has been fire. It gets things warm, it fends off the dark, and it makes a dandy way to smoke meat (assuming you have some). It has immense psychological value, and can save your life in a survival situation.

A Few Terms

  • Kindling: The stuff you light with a match - paper, twigs, dollar bills, underwear (cotton burns well, and if it takes that to start a fire to keep you alive...)
  • Tinder: The stuff that the kindling lights on fire - slightly larger pieces of fuel. It is an in-between stage; too large to start with a match (or striker, or lighter, etc.) on its own, but too small to provide really useful heat on its own.
  • Firewood: Larger things - really, anything large enough to provide usable heat. The kind of things that a lot of people think of as what goes in a fire. Important, but you have to get the other things in there first.
  • Fuel: Anything that burns. This includes you, if you are not careful enough. Or your hair, your clothing, the prairie grass around you, the pine needles in the forest, and a lot of other things you may not intend to...
  • Igniter: Anything from a match to a road flare, it just has to catch things on fire. My preferred option is either a zippo, or flint and steel, but anything that produces flame (or enough heat) will do. Sparks will do in a pinch. You can start a fire with a motorcycle battery, or a watch lens focusing the sun - it just has to produce enough heat.
  • Fire pit: Where the fire takes place. Does not have to be a pit, but it is best to mark off where the fire stops. You can make one by placing stones in a circle, or by cutting the top layer of grass out of the ground using a shovel or a knife. When the fire is done, you can replace the grass, effectively leaving little to no trace.

How to Build a Fire

First-  Determine what you are going to use the fire for. A small cooking fire is a lot different than a signal fire that you want to be seen at 10,000 feet. And a small fire to provide light may be a lot easier to fuel, but it requires an area to provide the light for, while you sleep and/or camp.

Second- Find an area appropriate to the fire you are going to build. A large, bright, visible fire requires you to have a wide area around it to view it from, as well as not being under any trees (you don't want them to catch fire!) A small camp fire may only need a few feet around it cleared to be safe, but will require more attention to keep lit.

Third- Clear the area of items you don't want to be burned and make a fire pit. A good rule of thumb on this is to go with five times the area of the fire pit. If your fire pit is a foot across, clear five feet in any direction from it of anything that you don't want burned. It is a bad place to leave your hair spray, for example.

Some of what you clear will become fuel for the fire. Put this in the middle, in preparation for it to be burned. You will sort out the pieces later.

Fourth- Gather fuel. It does not have to be wood, but wood is the most common fuel for this sort of thing. You don't want to run out part way through, and have to go forage for more, if there is an emergency about. Kindling, tinder, and firewood should be gathered at about this step. Dry is better, but not essential. Damp is bad, but a good fire will dry it out so that you can use it. Dry kindling is essential, and there is no real way around that.

Fifth- Build the fire. Sort the pieces you have acquired (including the ones you found while clearing the area) into tinder, kindling, and firewood.

Place a larger piece of fuel (usually a log) in the middle of your fire pit. Roll it to off-center. Place the kindling near it, using it to form a shell to protect against things like the wind. Put the smallest kindling first, and larger pieces on top of that, forming a tent leaning against the log, allowing space to get a match (or whatever you use) in to light it. Remember to use small dry pieces of kindling, because even if your tinder is wet, you can often use kindling to (somewhat) dry it out. Place the tinder nearby, with a couple pieces of the smaller tinder on the tent, ready to catch fire as soon and the kindling is caught.

Sixth- Light that sucker. Get your match, Zippo, flint and steel, whatever igniter you have, and apply heat. Get the flame or sparks to the center of the tent, and catch the smallest pieces of kindling on fire. Protect it from wind using your hands, and blow gently to help the flame along.

Seventh- Feed it. Starting with tinder, add bigger pieces of fuel to the fire until you are up to however big you wanted to get. Remember that a flame requires air, so try to place things such that air can flow between the pieces of wood as they burn. If oxygen cannot get underneath the wood on that flame, you are not getting complete combustion. Go ahead and roll things around, and keep a stick you like to poke the fire with and stir things up. Having a stick on hand to tend the flame can save quite a bit of trouble.

Remember- Practice this. Build a small fire in your back yard (assuming the codes in your municipality allow that), or go camp and build a small fire a couple times out in the woods. Do it enough that you know what to do without having to resort to half a can of lighter fluid, and then go do it some again. You want to do it when it is not an emergency, so when it is, you know what to do, and you actually have some of that oh-so-warm food.

Lastly- Put the dang thing out. Use water, or dirt if that's not available, or anything else non-flammable that you can get to smother the remaining embers of that flame. Cover the embers and coals, and make sure you don't see any smoke. Do whatever you must to make sure that fire is dead, and then place your bare hands where the fire once was to make certain it's not hot.  I don't care if it is the end of the world, anything you burn down should not be on accident.

Be safe, have fun, and remember that you don't have to spend a hundred dollars on some fancy gadget to have a fire. A bit of practice, and you can be burning things like an old pro - because by then,you will be.

The Fine Print

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License

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