Making fire seems easy, especially when you do it for fun on a hot summer’s day.  But when you really need it, fire can be a great humbler.  From the time I set the woods on fire in second grade, to the many times I froze my buns off during survival treks, trying to light matches or bow-drill fires in a downpour, fire has been one of my greatest teachers.

What, you say?  You set the woods on fire in second grade?  Well yes, but it was Danny Donnell’s fault.  I’m serious.  No, really.  C’mon!  He was the big kid on the block, and he yelled at all of us to hurry down to the lake for swimming.  I hung back, by myself, hurriedly piling plywood on the coals, hoping to smother them.  Little did I know what that does!

But the other boys were already gone, yelling at me from outside the woods, calling me a sissy for worrying about the fire.  So I ran down to the lake with them.  Next thing I knew, my big brother Tom was laying rubber down the driveway in his ’65 Mustang, yelling out the window that the woods were on fire.

About 2,500 square feet burned before the fire department put it out, and we swore that we weren’t at fault, despite the fact that our secret fort was obviously in the center of the burned area.  Three days later, racked with guilt, I confessed to my mom, who simply said in her perfected Catholic voice, “but you swore to God.”

It was actually Andy Drewsonolich who swore to God.  No, really.  Fine, don’t believe me.  Maybe I agreed with Andy, but I didn’t actually say it.  I can still feel the knot of guilt in my stomach that persisted for years afterwards.  The Knot of Purgatory.  Almost as bad as the Fires of Hell.

Anyway, back to the article.  There’s an infinite amount to teach about fire, so I’m just going to focus on a basic foundation that you will rarely find articulated, a foundation that is instead falsely assumed to be obvious.  In the end, you can’t really learn fire-making by reading about it.  You have to learn fire’s infinite lessons on your own, because it’s an experiential thing, different with every fire you light.

I’m not even going to discuss fire safety in this article.  Perhaps another time, and in the meantime, just be conservative with fire.  But if you turn my article inside-out, you may actually understand fire safety in a deep way.  For instance, one of the pillars of fire is shelter.  So if you want to put a fire out, remove all its shelter.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Pillars of Fire

If you read my article on the Order of Survival in the September 2010 issue of Seattle Backpackers Magazine, you will see that the most important  human needs are air, warmth, water and food. Similarly, fire itself needs what I call the Pillars of Fire which create its foundation. The pillars are air, food and warmth itself. That’s right, take away enough air, take away food, or drop the temperature low enough, and any fire will go out.

Food is perhaps the most obvious thing that fire needs.  Everyone scrambles to find enough wood or various other material to throw at a fire, thinking that will help.  Unfortunately, many “foods” are detrimental to fire.  For instance, leaves will usually do little more than smolder unless a fire is already raging.  Yet some, like dried mugwort leaves, are excellent “coal extenders” that help coals live in the absence of flame.

What I suggest for fire food includes making sure you can find or make, in order of size, 1) dry tinder that will allow a coal to blow into flame, 2) thin wood pieces or twigs that will catch from a simple match flame, 3) twigs or split branches of less than 1 cm thickness which will help strengthen a fire, 4) split kindling or branches of 1-2 cm that will keep your fire alive for a couple of minutes, 5) split kindling or branches of 1 inch diameter that will keep your fire alive for 10-15 minutes depending on conditions, 6) kindling or split logs of 2 inch diameter that will keep your fire alive for about 20-30 minutes, and finally, 7) split logs that will keep your fire going for 1-2 hours.

The author gathering fire materials

Miss any of the above sizes in the Pacific Northwest, and you risk not having a fire unless you soak your man-logs with gasoline.  There are many tips I could include regarding each of those 7 sizes of fire food, but for now, I’ll just mention some of my favorites. For instance, if you can’t find Size 2 above (thin wood pieces or 1 mm thick twigs) then just start whittling a piece of wood to create shavings.  Be sure to keep them off the ground and away from other moist surfaces.

For tinder, whose purpose is to transform a coal into flame, it’s important to have a combination of materials that flame up well, and materials that extend coal life.  Either way, be sure to keep your materials long and stringy, yet fluffed up.  That’s something that needs to be shown, so just keep it in mind for now, and experiment with the inner bark of the following trees which are excellent tinder materials that transform coals into flame: cedar/juniper/sequoia bark, cottonwood/poplar bark, and birch/cherry bark, among others. Many other materials will also work, including dried grasses which are among my favorite.

As for “coal extender” materials (they are important and ensure you still have a coal in case you “blow out” your materials that are supposed to flame up quickly), the easiest thing to gather is “down” which is the material that surrounds wind-blown seeds.  My favorite is fireweed, maybe due to the name, but mostly because it is a combination of down and tiny twigs that also blow into flame.  Cattail “tails” are super-compacted downy material, and one “tail” will probably suffice for adding to multiple tinder bundles.  Cottonwood, named after its floating down, is another good coal extender, as are certain dried leaves such as mugwort like I mentioned above, sage and many more.

Air:  Make Your Life Easier by Managing It with These Tricks-of-the-Trade

Another pillar of fire that everyone probably knows about is air, and oxygen in particular.  By the way, for the chemists out there, we’re talking about campfires here, so let’s not get technical about all the other flammable elements, or the fact that stars can keep burning in the absence of external warmth, etc., all of which you can mention to “blow away” my Three Pillars article here.  Thanks 😉

Air is a problem, though.  Not only will too much wind blow out small flames, but it can also blow out coals if there isn’t enough food for the coals to live on.  Which brings up the fact that everything must be in balance with air-flow in order for fire to live. Usually, if you have a small flame, some excited kid will blow it out, thinking that a good puff of air will help.  The key is learning when to blow, or when to protect your coal or flame from wind, and when to increase it.  Again, this takes practice, and as a teacher once told me, it takes 1,000 mistakes to become an expert at something, so get busy and start making them!

The author with smoking tinder

So, to mitigate the constant variable of airflow, there are a few tricks you can employ. First, dig a fire pit about 4-6 inches into the ground, or if you are in a dry rocky area, then in a slightly low spot.  If you are on saturated ground, then find a slightly higher area and otherwise don’t worry about it.  However, a fire pit is not just for safety.  The point is to draft air into your fire (cool air falls into it, which is good) yet protect it from strong winds.

Second, create gaps in the rocks surrounding your fire pit, taking into account the wind. If there is no wind, then create gaps in 4 directions so that air can flow into the fire. If there is a nice little breeze, then create one gap in the direction the wind is coming from.  If there is a big wind, then build your rocks up higher and create your gap on the leeward side of the fire, which will bring in more gentle “eddy” air.

There are certainly more tips to creating the right airflow for your fire, but the bottom line is to help it light and stay safely burning, but also to create the fire so you don’t have to blow.  Blowing dehydrates you, is tiring, and often makes you breathe smoke, among other problems.  Again, practice, practice, practice.

Warmth = Shelter

Warmth may be created by fire, but more importantly, it is maintained by shelter.  Could your very cells burn energy without cell walls to protect them?  How many forest fires burn in below zero temperatures?  Yet how many people try to make fire without sheltering it?  Fortunately, some things people do for fires do have secondary sheltering effects, such as placing rocks around a fire for safety, or putting big logs on a fire.

Just like when I put a bunch of plywood on our fort fire as a kid, thinking it would smother air out of it, sheltering coals actually heats them up.  Thus, a little air seepage and a forest fire starts.  So, think “shelter” just as much as you think “food” and “air” when making and maintaining fire, and follow these “secret” tips for a sure-fire, um, fire.

Build a home for your fire.  The best, in case of cold temperatures, snow or rain, is the Tipi Fire.  Sure, you’ve heard of it, but can you build one that doesn’t fall apart, and that doesn’t get your tinder wet while building it?  Practice!  Okay, here’s how to do it.

Wolf Camp instructor encouraging a student. Which steps remain for a completed “tipi” fire?

No matter what, start by placing a bunch of combustable stuff in your fire pit.  Even leaves.  Even moist leaves if the ground is already wet anyway.  The point is to shelter your fire from the ground.  Skip this step and you might as well skip making your fire.  If it is cold and dry, then the rest of the tipi fire is easy to build.  Look again at the sizes of “food” listed above, surround your tinder (Size 1) with thin twigs (Size 2) that burn such as the Western Hemlock tree (not the poisonous hemlock plant) twigs, but not twigs that don’t burn well, such as, ironically, cedar twigs whose inner bark and trunk wood does burn well.  Then continue outward with bigger and bigger sizes until you’ve created a tipi.

If it is snowing or raining, start with your big logs and work inwards.  This is a bit of a trick, so build that outer layer, lashing the top together with willow bark, non-poisonous vines, natural rope, or other marginally flammable material.  Do two or three layers to ensure that no snow, and little rain, can penetrate your tipi.  The logs can even be wet.  All the matters is that it shelters the fire you build inside it.  Later, after your fire grows, the logs will dry out and eventually burn.  In the meantime, keep your tinder in a dry pocket, or even between your stomach and shirt if the tinder has moisture and needs help drying it out.  Then practice building those layers of material inside your tipi shelter frame, and good luck!

Traditional Firemaking

In this month’s issue of Seattle Backpackers Magazine, the author Ravenspeaker makes an excellent point in his article “Reviving an Ancient Technology” about stopping to consider whether ancient technologies should be considered primitive.  Methods of starting fire by friction, for instance, are often referred to as “primitive firemaking” along with other skills such as traditional home building, basketry, flintknapping, etc.  I used to use that term, too, until I was teaching a survival class a few years ago with a couple Native American friends in attendance, and for some reason, I could not spit the word “primitive” out in front of them except as a joke.  Could you?

No, the word to use is “traditional.”  Just because fire by friction, spears and the like were some of the first technologies that humans developed doesn’t relegate them to being primitive.  If these skills are so primitive, why are they so hard to master?  They are traditional, the first in a long line of technologies leading up to the internet and beyond, and we should give them the respect they deserve.

Finally, I’m not going to spend time in this article on traditional firemaking technologies such as the bow-drill for these reasons: 1) If you don’t back up and spend time practicing the three Pillars of Fire, there’s no reason to “bust a coal” with a bow-drill; 2) There’s no way to do fire-by-friction justice without video; and 3) there are a million videos on You-tube that show you how to do it.

Oh, and so as not to give away everything, I’m not going to give you my recipe for making what Ravenspeaker calls a “fireball” and what I call a Traveling Match.  However, I’m going to put out a challenge similar to the one he did, asking you to make one and report back your experience.  In fact, we’ll do that very thing during this weekend’s Wolf College workshop on Traditional Firemaking.  We’ll see who can put together the most effective Traveling Match, place a coal into each, and see which one lasts the longest.  My record is about a day, using the materials I include in this article: cedar, fireweed, mugwort, fir pitch, etc.

Ah, so much more to write, but when we’re dealing with a skill that requires learning an infinite number of tips and correcting infinite pitfalls, we must end sometime….

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