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Covering the basics about fire

by Frank Bates

There’s much to be said about fire and its necessity in survival situations. In future articles we’ll get into specifics, but I want to start with some of the basics because it’s easy to forget this stuff.

Being able to make fire is an absolutely essential skill to surviving anywhere, anytime, in any environment and during any season… especially winter. However, in winter or during summer rainstorms, it is sometimes impossible to give fire the “life” it needs to exist.

Native Americans were right — fire is a living thing. It breathes, grows, ages, eats and rests. It is pleasantly passive or rages mercilessly. Fire can protect you, tease you, challenge you, save you or destroy you. Fire leaves messy waste and it cleans things. Just as it was born, fire can die.

Most important, fire has a mind of its own. When contained (like a person in prison), it is ever-intent on escape. So, practice fire safety at all times.

The “triple-fuel-rule”

Once you think you have gathered just enough wood to get you through a long cold night… you are probably wrong. Now, triple your woodpile. In desert environments where available fuel tends to burn fast, make it five times as much as you think is enough.

Elements of fire

Fire requires three things to be born and live. They are fuel, oxygen and ignition. With a balance of the three, fire will spring to life. Take any one of them away and it will die.

Fuel. Fuel for a fire can be anything you find that burns. Natural materials such as wood, grasses and dry manure are best. Burning man-made materials works, but they tend to stink and often produce toxic fumes.

Oxygen.  Ambient air is usually sufficient to maintain a campfire unless in a tightly confined area. Fanning or blowing into coals or tiny flames will always accelerate the burn.

Ignition.  There are dozens of ways to provide ignition to start a campfire.  The wisest move is to always carry two modern ignition devises: disposable cigarette lighters and a magnesium starter stick. With these instruments you will never have to resort to a primitive and unreliable ignition method such as rubbing two sticks together.

Fire-starting materials

When building a campfire, you will need to gather three fuel materials to get a fire started and maintain it: tinder, accelerant (kindling) and long-term fuel (dry logs or branches).

Tinder.  Fire tinder is some kind of very dry and airy material that can be ignited quickly from a single flame, sparks from a mag-stick or a tiny hot coal. Any tinder must be dry or you are wasting your time. Examples include:

  1. Very dry grasses and leaves
  2. Finely shaved dry wood, bark or sawdust
  3. Dried bird or rodent nests
  4. Dry cattail heads picked apart
  5. Finely crumbled, very dry animal dung of any kind.

Accelerant or Kindling.  By accelerant I’m talking about the next step up from tinder: small twigs or bundled dry grass. You must have enough tinder to ignite the heavier kindling. Then, you must have enough kindling to ignite larger tight fiber pieces, such as large limbs or logs (long-term fuel).

Long-Term Fuel. Gathered dead branches or cut/split logs are the favored fuel. However, when in the desert or dry plains, there isn’t a tree to be had for miles. That’s when you must gather alternatives such as sagebrush stocks, tightly bound dry grasses and dried animal dung.


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