A skill that is absolutely necessary for survival in rough conditions is knowing how to build a fire. Yet, as we have seen on numerous reality shows, this is a skill that many people don't have. However, the good news is that building a fire is a simple matter involving science and art, and one that is easily learned.
Fires need three things: fuel, heat, and air circulation. The combination of these three determines the characteristics of the fire--how long the fuel lasts, the amount of heat that is given off, and many other factors. Learning the interaction of these three elements will give you a good understanding of how to manage a fire once it starts, but also guarantee that you will know how to make one any time that it is required.
Note that a flame is not required to start a fire, which explains why you need to be careful of storing solvents and other flammable materials. Knowing fire safety is vitally important--which is why you need to experiment with building a fire to understand how fires work and how you can control them. By managing the combination of fuel, heat, and air, you will be able to control how a fire burns.
Understanding how fires burn is essential to fire safety
Things You Will Need
Match, magnifying glass, or other source of ignition
Wood, charcoal, coal, or other flammable material
Small bits and sticks of wood that will catch easily, sorted by size for kindling
Paper, straw, cardboard, or any other highly flammable material for tinder
Safe place to start a fire: a fireplace, fire pit, or fire bowl
Step 1At the bottom of the fireplace, fire pit, or fire bowl, arrange a pile of small twigs. There should be ample airflow between the twigs (about a quarter of an inch is sufficient) and arranging them in a teepee or pyramid shape is probably a good place to start. Leave a space in the teepee shape to add small flammable materials such as bits of paper or straw. (This is called "tinder" in many sources.)
Step 2Place your sticks nearby. You will want to start with the smallest ones closest to you and feed them in the order of small to large sticks. (This is called "kindling" in many sources.)
Step 3Crumple up a piece of paper or cardboard, and place it under the twigs, or use a small amount of straw or other flammable material.
Step 4If you are outside during daylight, you can use a magnifying glass to start your fire. Hold the magnifying glass over the paper, and move it towards and away from the tinder, and watch the light until you see it form a sharp, bright point. Once you see the light focus to that sharp point, hold the magnifying glass steady. If you are using a Fresnel lens this will take only a second or two--with an optic glass it may take up to thirty seconds or longer, depending on the strength of the sun's rays.
Alternatively, use a match and light the paper, cardboard, or straw.
Step 5If your twigs are arranged properly, you should see them start to catch on fire. If they do not, feed small bits of paper, cardboard, or straw under the twigs until they do. Remember the combination of heat, fuel, and air, and experiment with them (blowing on the fire, adding fuel) until the twigs catch on fire.
Step 6As soon as your twigs begin to catch, carefully, and one at a time, lay on slightly bigger sticks. Remember to keep the air circulating between the sticks, and try not to collapse the pile of twigs. If you put too much wood on at once, you will reduce the heat, or restrict the airflow, and the fire will go out.
Step 7Keep adding sticks one at a time, and as soon as each catches, add the next stick. Increase the size of the sticks, remembering to let each one catch before you add the next, and monitor the air flow so that the flames can go between each stick. If your fire is burning too fast, reduce the airflow by moving the sticks closer together (this will also increase the heat, so you may need to cover some of the fire with ashes). If your fire is burning too slowly, you will need to increase the heat (add burning materials or material that burns hot, such as paper, pine, or magnolia) or the airflow (blow on the fire).
Step 8Once your sticks have caught, it's time to add your larger flammable material--charcoal, coal, or logs. Again, remember the combination of fuel, heat, and airflow, and don't dump a lot of coal blocks or logs on the fire at once, but add them one or two at a time.
It is extremely important to keep your fire under control at all times. In many cases, once your fire is going, you should add no more than one log per hour. Before you leave a fire, make sure it is completely extinguished and cool--remember that those hot coals need only a few leaves blowing across them to start a huge wildfire that can burn thousands of acres under the right conditions.
In any case, knowing how to start, maintain, bank, and control a fire are extremely useful skills. By learning these skills, you will be able to act safely even in case of an accidental fire. You may even save someone's life!
Tips & Warnings
Never, ever, leave a fire unattended.
It's best to observe the qualities of different types of woods and how they burn:
Pine burns fast and hot, and gives off many sparks because of the resin it contains, so it must be tended carefully.
Magnolia burns fast and hot, but without the resins.
Elm requires a lot of heat to catch and burns slowly.
Oak burns well and requires only a moderate amount of heat to catch.
If your fire burns too slowly, add some magnolia or pine, increase the heat, or space the logs according to whether it needs more heat, or more air. If it is burning too quickly, add some hardwood, or move the logs further apart to dissipate the heat. You can also bank a fire by restricting the airflow.
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