There are few things that have affected humankind so much as fire. From the earliest days, humans have harnessed, or attempted to harness, this simple element to provide warmth, light, protection against predators, and as a mechanism to cook food. As technology advanced humankind’s dependence on fire has waned, often reducing it to a role of the simplest of entertainment or as a tool used primarily for its aesthetic effect. This dependence has never been completely eliminated, however. Remove the human from the civilization that has been inflicted on the earth and fire becomes more than just an atmosphere creating distraction; it returns to the very base of the hierarchy of needs. Remove the human from his or her civilization and fire becomes the difference between life and death on a cold night, the difference between health and illness when cooking food or purifying water, and the difference between being rescued or not.
So, how do we achieve that state of semi divine intercession where there is enough heat, enough oxygen, and proper fuel?
So, why is it such a pain to build a fire? It seems the greater the need for fire, the harder it is to start one.
Part of this is, of course, because one rarely desperately needs fire when conditions are good for building one. If you need a fire that badly chances are very good that either you, or the whole environment including you is soaking wet and freezing cold. The human animal is not designed to be cold and wet and, as such, does not handle it well. Fingers lose their dexterity as blood is forced from the extremities to the core as the body attempts to save life, at the expense of limb. This is all well and good but I have never seen anyone strike a match or work a lighter, much less utilize some of the more primitive means of getting a fire going, with fingers that wouldn’t obey the commands of the brain. Additionally, if the environment is wet then the elements required for building fire are also, likely, wet.
Another factor is the lesser role that fire plays in our advanced society. If you don’t need something very often it is unlikely that you will hone or practice the skill set necessary to acquire it. When most fireplaces have become gas inserts and more and more camping and recreation areas ban fires where, exactly, does one hone or maintain the skills necessary?
And so, we begin with an overview of what fire is before we move on to the business of getting one started.
Viewed scientifically, fire is the result of a chemical reaction when fuel, heat, and oxygen mix in the appropriate ratio.
Viewed less than scientifically, it is a mythical creature that provides us so much frustration at getting it going that it almost seems to combust as a result of human fury.
For our purposes, we should stick with the scientific view.
In order to build a fire, you need three things; fuel, heat, and oxygen. This is known as the “Fire Triangle”. Seems simple enough, but it isn’t. The fuel must be of the proper composition, and there must be enough heat and enough oxygen.
So, how do we achieve that state of semi divine intercession where there is enough heat, enough oxygen, and proper fuel? Simple.
Start with your fuel. It is the only piece of fire that is consumable and the only part that will need to be restocked, at least until the fire is out and you need to build a new one. It is also the only ingredient that you have any ability to control or manipulate.
While most any type of wood will do in a pinch, hardwoods work the best. What is a hardwood? Put simply, any (or nearly any) deciduous tree (a tree that sheds its leaves in winter) is a hardwood tree. Hard woods are denser than soft woods (pine) which causes them to burn hotter and more cleanly. Less smoke, less residue, and fewer sparks.
The second part of the equation that you need to conquer is providing enough heat to ignite your fuel. While it is possible to carry or acquire a heat source of such extreme potency that it will ignite almost anything, it is unlikely. Most of us will have matches or a cigarette lighter, which only produces so much heat. Not near enough to get a log, or even a stick, to ignite. The way to ensure that your match has enough heat to ignite your fuel is to ensure that you have all three types of fuel. These three types are tinder, kindling, and sustaining fuel.
Tinder is the smallest and lightest fuel source. It is so small that your match will ignite it. Tinder comes from a variety of sources that are different from the source of your other fuels. Good sources of tinder are dried grass, crushed cypress or cedar bark, cotton lint, even chemical sources like Vaseline. Tinder is your most fragile fuel source and, if you are venturing out into the wild, it behooves you to collect it in advance, dry it, and keep it dry. When you put match to your tinder you won’t get a big flame, but you will get a bed of heat that, with the judicious application of lung power, can be fanned to ignite the next type of fuel, your kindling.
Kindling is the intermediate step. Kindling should be hardwood and also very small, think no bigger than toothpick sized. When applying your kindling, be cautious not to apply too much, too fast. Remember, that adding too much kindling too fast will make it impossible for the tinder to ignite it. Once your kindling is going, you need only to apply the largest part, the sustaining fuel.
Sustaining fuel is the last and largest of your fuel. It starts about pencil sized and ranges up to logs, depending on the desired size of your fire. Again, be judicious with how you add your sustaining fuel. If you have your kindling going, dropping a big log on it will put it out just as surely as pouring a bucket of water on it.
But what about oxygen?
An excellent question. It is impossible to get too much oxygen into a fire. It is not impossible for there to be too little. So, how do you tell and what do you do about it? The simplest way is smoke. If you have a lot of smoke but your fire won’t come to life, you have an oxygen problem. To solve this, get your face down at the level of the fire (it should go without saying to keep it out of the fire) and blow directly into the very base of the fire. Do not be shy with this. You should see immediate and dramatic effect to the addition of oxygen. If you don’t, then you either have a heat problem or you are blowing in the wrong place. When done properly the fire should have almost a jet engine sound as you blow.
So, now you have your fire burning. Remember that you will need to constantly monitor your fire to make sure that it maintains the three elements in the proper ratio.
Still having troubles? Having a hard time getting your fuel to take off? Can’t get your tinder to light? Remember that fire burns up, not down. At the smallest level, try using your match on the bottom side of your tinder then, once your tinder is burning slowly adding kindling to the top of the tinder. Once your kindling is burning, your sustaining fuel will take care of itself. The fire is already burning and, unless you have an extremely high pain tolerance or a severe nervous system problem, you won’t be able to pick it up to put your fuel underneath it. Is the ground wet? Try building a plat form out of small (about an inch in diameter) sticks by lying them next to each other then building your fire on top of that.
Hopefully, you found this informative and enlightening. As you venture out, away from the civilization, the ability to build and start a fire, sans accelerants, can be the difference from having a pleasant trip or a miserable, and potentially deadly one.