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About making fire
Anthropologists tell us that making fire was a major step forward in primitive man’s development. They say this achievement was so important that it is memorialized in the mythologies of all the ancient civilizations with stories about godlike fire givers and fire thieves. They explain that making fire allowed man to control his environment for the first time: to push back the dark, provide heat, and protection against predators . If you are ever forced to survive a cold night outdoors without a fire, you won’t need a Ph. D. to get the point: Learning to make fire quickly and reliably in a variety of threatening environments can save your life.! Just like that primitive ancestor, with this skill you can provide light, heat, and protection at will. You can also: cook and sterilize your food and water, bend and harden wood into tools, and signal for help. Talk about taking control and feeling empowered in a tough situation!!
Okay, so what’s the big deal, Right? How hard can it be to start a fire? With good weather conditions, the right tools, materials and methods; it's not hard at all. But wait a minute.... tell me you don't know someone who takes an hour to light a dry bag of barbecue coals using full quart of lighter fuel and a Zippo! Before you laugh too hard : Are you sure you could do better if it was damp and cold? Or if you didn't have that lighter fuel? Or without the Zippo? There’s the hitch; the desperate need for fire isn’t likely to arise at your next backyard barbecue on a nice summer day!! Most of the time you’ll have to contend with harsh weather and the scarcity of good combustible material. You might even be injured!
So let’s imagine that needful moment is here, and to make things simpler... for now, that you have that fully fueled Zippo with you. What what do you need to know? And what kind of conditions are you likely to confront?
Well, before anything you need to know some things about the nature of fire. If that sounds kinda Zen don't worry, I'm not going“new age” on you! I'm talking about how combustion works physically. Fire is in fact a wonderfully complex thing; a full understanding requires knowledge in thermodynamics, heat transfer and chemistry. I'm not going to go that deep here; the following diagram will help keep things easy to understand and remember!
This triangle illustrates the relationship of the essential components for a fire: REMEMBER: FUEL, HEAT, and OXYGEN!!! The triangle's connected corners symbolize the interdependence of these components; reducing or eliminating any of these will prevent a fire from starting or continuing to burn. Basically, any FUEL (combustible material) supplied with enough OXYGEN will be set on fire if it absorbs enough heat. So you've got the Zippo (heat source) and air is about 20 % oxygen; find some wood and you're set, right? Not so fast!
Unless you're stranded in the desert, your biggest challenge will be moisture. Notice I didn't say rain! What I'm talking about is the water that's inside every piece of combustible material around you. That's right, even in “kiln dried firewood” water makes up 12 % of the total weight! At this point it's important to remember some grade school science about water. First, drying water (applying heat to change it from liquid to vapor absorbs a very large amount of heat and the resulting steam pulls heat away from the fuel and keeps it from reaching its ignition temperature. Second, steam is a gas and it can displace the air around the fuel and further inhibit the combustion process .
Even with a Zippo, unless you've got a liquid fuel or solid fuel blocks, you'll need tinder: material that’s finely fibered, very dry, and easily ignitable. All fire starting techniques rely on it and except in desert environments, dry tinder is scarce. The importance of tinder can't be overstated! Learn where to find it (see tinder articles), how to make it if necessary (see fuzz stick or feather stick, crushing wood), and how to store it (we need to talk about this). Tinder dries easily because it's its surface area is large in comparison to its volume. This small volume and its low water content means you'll need less heat to raise its temperature up to the point of ignition. Once a piece of the tinder ignites it provides heat to ignite its neighbors.
The heat generated from the tinder bundle or stack is used to ignite small twigs, and then their heat to ignite small sticks. This “smaller to large” process is used to ignite increasingly larger pieces of fuel. It is a core principle of all good fire designs. Also always remember that hot gases rise and cold gases drop. Most of the heat from a fire is being released upwards; that's why it's always best to put your tinder bundle in low with increasingly large pieces of fuel stacked above it. That way the rising hot gases can warm and dry the fuel that's above. But always take care not to crush down on your tinder; remember no oxygen means no fire! In fact the same idea applies to the whole fuel stack, always leave open cracks between the pieces of fuel. The cracks should be about the same width as the fuel you're stacking. With very damp wood it's best to feed the fire by hand, that is to sort out the fuel by sizes, and after igniting the fire bundle feed in increasingly larger pieces of fuel slowly and carefully.
Also be aware that any cold or damp surfaces that are in close contact with your fire will draw away heat energy. Cold stones draw a lot of heat as do large pieces of damp wood and the wet ground as well. These types of surfaces can quickly cool the smoke of the fire bundle; the cooled smoke doesn't rise quickly and can choke the small flames. Also beware of strong winds that can scatter your tinder or the sparks, coals or small flame from your fire starter. In windy conditions, work close to a barrier or crouch down and use your body to block shield your flame. In very damp and cold conditions try to prop your tinder bundle above the ground, use a small bed of sticks lined up side by side, or some flat stones if they're available.
Good camp fire design is based on an understanding of the physics of heat transfer or movement. Heat
always moves from hotter regions towards colder ones. The bigger the temperature difference, the faster the heat moves. It only has three ways of moving, conduction, convection, and radiation. In a camp fire, conduction causes the opposite end of a lit stick to get warm, that is the heat has traveled through the wood. For our purposes convection relates to the hot gases rising from the fire or the cold wind that's chilling our body; it refers to the heat to moves between a moving gas to a solid object. Most of the heat we can feel coming from a fire is getting to us by radiation; the fire is literally putting out microscopic heat waves. All warm bodies do this, the same way the sun heats the earth through 93 million miles of space!
The following pictures illustrate the four main fire designs: the tee pee, the log cabin, the lean to, parallel / long and the reflector fire.
The teepee design maximizes the heat boot-strapping effect; using the heat of the smaller interior fire to light the larger exterior fuel. However requires an abundant supply of fuel of increasing diameter and lengths. Unless you have a good cutting tool and plenty of time, you will have a hard time constructing one that performs well. If your are using any fire starting technique produces a small coal ( bow and drill, fire plow or fire piston) you will need to build an opening for placing the lit tinder bundle into the fuel pile's center.
The log cabin design doesn't require your fuel length to be very precise. In fact it will allow you to use the fire to cut longer logs and sticks in half. By modifying the stacking so that the squares get smaller as they go higher you can capture more of the rising heat. You also want to stack smaller diameter wood in layers between the larger outside risers, these will ignite quickly, burn through and collapse down forming a coal bed. This design can be modified by placing two big parallel logs a the base so that a lit fire bundle can be inserted.
The reflector fire is good to use if you've got several short, thick pieces of wood that you can stack into a wall. By building a smaller wood fire against this wall, it will get hot and radiate heat towards you. Remember most of an open fire's heat is going straight up with the combustion gases, so increasing the fire's radiation means more heat for you, less that goes up in smoke.
A few words about fire placement. Pick a spot that's relatively flat and is a safe distance away from large combustible objects like trees, tree stumps, low hanging branches and your shelter!! Scrape the ground clear of grass and leaves. You want your fire to be downwind of your shelter's entrance; unless it's just a small smudge fire you're using to keep the bugs off you. If conditions are cold and windy and you have enough material build a wind barrier directly downwind of the fire. This will create a high pressure zone and most of the wind will slip over the fire. Yes, I know it's counter-intuitive but try it and you'll see that it works. Also if you can angle the barrier towards your shelter's entrance it will act as a reflector and radiate more heat towards you.
Parallel long fire and reflector
In some instances a parallel long fire with a reflector is the best option. During a trip to Ontario training with Canadian Bushcraft's Caleb Musgrave we built a parallel long fire with a reflector wall to reflect the heat to our super shelter. In more extreme cold weather a long fire ensures warmth, simplifies melting snow and cooking. We cooked fish using the plank method. Anyone near Ontario should consider taking courses with Caleb. His knowledge of bushcraft is inspiring.
Here is a fine example from our friends at Wilderness Essentials Survival