Thursday, April 26, 2018

Fire Carriers

One of the most common subjects in any prepper discussion is fire and how to start one. We've covered various methods of building and starting fires over the years, so I thought it might be time to take a step sideways and talk about carrying your fire with you.

A long time ago, in a place not too far away, I was a Boy Scout. 40-50 years ago, a lot of the lore and training of the Boy Scouts was based on American Indian traditions and practices because our leaders were trying to teach us wilderness skills and the local Indian tribes had worked out ways to deal with the same weather, animals, and terrain that we would be encountering. I live in the area the various Sioux tribes wandered, so we learned some of the tricks that they used.

Fire Horns
A nomadic people, the Sioux would “bug out” whenever they needed to: following the buffalo herds, migrating with the seasons, looking for fresh water, and territorial disputes were some of the reasons for moving. They would strike camp, pack up the belongings they wanted/needed, and travel to their destination.

One of the first things done at a new location was to light the community fire. Having a community fire offered everyone a quick and reliable way to start their own personal fires for heating and cooking. The communal (or council) fire was also a meeting place for the leaders of the tribe, and many cultures share the tradition of discussion around a camp fire as a method of bonding as a community and working out problems.

Since friction fires and flint and steel are time consuming ways to start a fire, and they didn't have access to matches, lighters, magnifying lenses, or any of the modern ways to start a fire, they used a “fire horn” to carry a burning ember from the last fire at the previous camp to the new location. A fire horn was a buffalo horn packed with soft punky wood that would smolder rather than burn, and covered with a loose-fitting cap to allow some air flow. A hot ember placed in the fire horn could be carried for up to a week and still be hot enough to start a fire. This was much quicker than starting from scratch!

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Making and Using a Fire Carrier
Since there are very few buffalo horns to be found and a lot of young Scouts, we used soup or bean cans to make our fire-horns.
  1. When opening the can, leave a bit less than a quarter of the lid attached to the rim. This provides a cover that can be opened or closed as needed to provide air to the embers, and it also won't get lost.
  2. Use a screwdriver or awl to punch holes around the top edge for the carrying strap, and punch a few holes around the bottom of the can to let air in.
  3. We used leather lacing for a carry strap, but any form of cordage will work. 550 cord seems to be the “tactical” solution for everything, and it will work just fine.
  4. Make your carrying strap long enough that the fire-horn is free to swing from your belt or shoulder as you walk. This makes sure that fresh air get into the can and sustains the glowing embers, and having a longer strap also keeps a potentially hot metal can away from your body. It should be long enough to swing it around your head when you're trying to revive the ember.
  5. Fill the can about ¾ full of soft punky wood. Look for a tree that has been down long enough that it has started to rot; you want small chunks of almost rotted wood about the size of your thumb that should be easy to crush with your hand but not turn to dust when you pick them up. The best choices will be from the trunk or large branches; rotted heartwood works better than thin branches due to its denser structure.
  6. Use a stick to pull a hot ember out of your existing campfire. You're looking for one that will fit into the can without touching the sides. Break it up until you get the right size.
  7. Use your stick to scrape the ember into the can, or use two sticks like chopsticks to pick it up and place it into the center of the punky wood.
  8. Close the lid and once you've made sure the old fire is completely out (listen to Smokey Bear, folks),  you're ready to travel.

Starting a Fire from a Carrier
We experimented (played) with our fire horns a lot. Frequent checking of the hot ember to make sure it was still burning was common, and if it showed signs of dying it could be revived by swinging the can around by the strap. This forced air through the holes and partially open lid, which helped keep the embers going. I think the longest we ever used one was three days, but that was due to the length of the campout.
  1. Once you get to your new camp, find fuel for your fire and a good source of tinder. Bird's nests work great as tinder, but a large double handful of dry grass is just as good.
  2. Set up your fire like you normally would, leaving a hole on one side of the bottom for the tinder.
  3. Open the lid of your can (use a stick or knife if it's hot) and carefully dump the hot ember into your pile of tinder.
  4. Pick up the pile and gently blow through the pile to get air to the ember. Once the tinder starts to burn, quickly place it into the prepared stack of fuel and work on getting a real fire going.
  5. Once you have your new fire going, clean out the fire horn. There may be small, smoldering embers in the bottom that will keep burning for days, so unless you're planning on moving again soon, dump it out to prevent accidents.

Not everything has to be new and improved! Our ancestors lived through a lot of things we don't normally see, and they figured out ways to get by. Most of the disasters we prepare for are disruptions of our modern lives, setting us back to a time before electricity and clean water were common, but people lived that way for centuries and I think we can learn some of their tricks in case we ever have to play by their rules. 

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