I have spent many nights sitting near a fire that I have made, feeling the warmth and safety of it. I think the ability to make a fire is an important one that we do not want to lose. So, I’ve also taught students in camp programs how to make fires. Here is the basic lesson: To make a fire you need to understand the life of the thing. The basic physical requirements are fuel, heat, and air. You might also add structure as a basic requirement because without the appropriate structure, a young fire can have difficulty thriving. Fuel is anything that burns, like wood. It is important to respect the trees and plants that can provide fuel for a fire. Things that are still alive and green won’t burn very well anyway. Hemlock is nice as tinder because the branches at the bottom of the tree die as the tree grows up. They are protected by the upper branches, and they have very fine twigs that heat up quickly and burn even when it is damp outside. Once you have the right wood you can create the appropriate structure which depends on the conditions in the environment. If it is very wet out, you need to plan carefully. Heat comes in the form of matches, lighters, even rubbing sticks together if you know how to do that, which is another important skill unto itself. Only light the fire when you know you have enough dry wood. Once the wood ignites, add the appropriate wood and manipulate the flow of air to help the fire catch and burn. Be patient. Fires start like little babies, and if you try to throw on a steak sized log, the fire will choke. In its most basic form, fire-making is a careful process that requires a deep sense of understanding for the fires needs. For example, when do I need to blow on the fire gently, or forcefully, or when is it best not to blow on the fire at all, but instead to add fuel, or to simply wait for the fuel to burn hotter? There are many subtleties involved in the process. It can be frustrating at times when the fire will not start and you are cold and tired. But it is also very satisfying to finally smell the wood smoke, and see the burning embers at the heart of a fire with tall flickering flames, and to feel the heat on your cheeks and hands and hear a crackling pop every now and again as a damp piece of wood burns dry.
Posted: Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010