The Element of FIRE

Fire picture
Photo by Colter Olmstead on Unsplash

Fire is powerful. Use it correctly and it can provide warmth, light, and protection. Use it incorrectly and it can cause mass destruction.  We have over 610 million acers of public land in the United States. Over the past 10 years an average of 6.6 million acers are burned nationwide. In 2017, over 71 thousand wildfires burned 10 million acres. A 2017 study by University of Colorado, Boulder’s Earth Lab shows that 84% of wildfires in the USA are started by humans or human activity. Annual cost of fighting wildfires in the USA has exceeded $2 billion in recent years. Be Safe and be careful when building a fire. 

A safe fire should have nothing that will burn except the fuel that feed your flames.  Examples of fuel include: paper, oils, grasses, wood, twigs, pine needles, leaves, and fabrics (backpacks)…heck, I have had the soles of my boots catch fire because I was not paying attention. When you establish your fire area, ensure that the fire cannot spread beyond your safe zone. Many public parks have built-in metal fire rings or grills. Use them whenever possible. You can also build a stone ring, ideally on gravel, sand or dirt, and a good distance from bushes, dry grass and trees.  Keep a minimum 5-6 foot radius from your stone ring as your “fuel free area.” Don’t forget to look up! Camping near a tree for shade and protection is generally a good idea but the overhanging branches present problems for your fire ring. Be mindful of the area above and below, as well as to the sides of the fire. You don’t want to start a fire over tree roots causing harm to the tree. In addition, you do not want to blacken boulders or mountain walls with smoke. Keep a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher close by just in case things get out of hand. 

When you’re starting a fire on bare ground, it is best practice to build up the area up 3-4 inches vertically with sand or dirt. This will provide protection for the ground. Gather enough dirt or sand that is free of organic material for the extra height. Then build your fire ring on the raised area. Once you have extinguished your fire, remove unburned material, and mix the ashes into the raised pad you created, and spread out. Any material that was previously raked away should be placed back once the fire is completely out and cold. 

Start your fire! 

Patience and preparation is the key to building a fire….and twice as much tinder and kindling as you think you will need. First gather tinder, kindling, and wood fuel. Tinder is anything that catches fire easily and burns fast. Dry pine needles, dry grass, shredded bark, and small shavings cut with a knife are typical, natural tinder. We also sell various tinder: Tinder quik (wax infused cotton), Spartan Fire, Jute bracelets, and Fiber Light. Check out the product to review quick videos how each one works. Tinder is critical to starting a fire. It provides the first burst of heat/flames. It’s always a good idea to have dry tinder on hand.  The Boy Scouts have a good rule of thumb for gathering enough tinder: Fill a baseball cap once…that should get you there. (FYI we have a couple of Eagles in our camp and they shared some great insight). Kindling is any dead and dry twigs with the max thickness of a number 2 pencil. Take that same baseball cap and fill it twice. Good fuel ranges from finger thick to the diameter of your wrist. Not all wrists are created equal…but that’s okay it will likely burn. Plus, you can split the wood if necessary. Focus your wood gathering on the ground for dead, dried wood. Do not cut limbs off live, green trees. Not only will the trees thank you, but your fire will burn better. 

Feathering some of your kindling and fuel is also a great technique to get the fire going. Here are a couple of video links showing different methods of feathering. 

You will want to use your knife to partially cut shavings but do not fully cut them off. We like to prop the feathered sticks upright and form the start of a teepee.

Lay the fire: 

Heat rises. Keep this in mind as you arrange the tinder, kindling, and fuel so that the heat of a single small flame (from the tinder) will grow into the roaring flames of a warm campfire. A teepee fire is a great method for a fire. “Log cabins” are great as well.

First place a large handful of tinder in the middle of your fire site. We like to arrange them into a mini teepee. Next make a medium teepee over the tinder with small kindling. Continue this process working your way up to larger kindling until you have reached your fuel pieces. Sometimes it is a good idea to take advantage of the soil base and sick longer pieces of kindling and fuel into the ground to create stable poles for the teepee structure. When creating the structure, purposefully leave an opening in the teepee on one side to receive fresh air. You can blow in the air or stage it to receive the wind if you have a good breeze. Remember it takes 3 things to have a good fire: heat, fuel, and oxygen. All three are essential. Many people will get a fire started then smother it with fuel and it goes out. 

Once you have your layers of teepee set up, we like to use a TinderQuik, which is easy and quick to light with a firebiner. Once lit, place the TinderQuik with the other small tinder. To get the TinderQuik lit, spread out one end and expose the tiny fibers. Lay a spark from the firebiner onto the small fibers. The tinder quick is wax-infused cotton so it will light easy but still be a slow burn. You can hold the TinderQuik on the opposite side and place the flame where needed. Here is a quick link showing a single spark fire using a TinderQuik.

If you are in a wet or high humidity environment, try and gather tinder, kindling, and fuel before it rains and keep it as dry as possible. Always keep some dry tinder stored in a water tight container such as a plastic bag or a vial (like our Wombat Whistle-Vial).  If needed, use a knife to baton a wet stick or log to produce some dry tinder and kindling. 

Practice, practice, practice. Try different methods. Grow your skillset. In an emergency, you will then be confident and know what to do.

Build fires large enough for your needs. Let’s face it, you don’t need a bonfire. This will minimize the amount of wood you burn and can make it easier to leave no trace once you are done. Be responsible with a campfire by keeping watch on it at all times. If you are leaving the area, extinguish the fire completely before you leave. Soak embers with water, then stir the damp ashes and then give it another splash of water. Repeat this process until you can hold your hand close to the ashes, and you do not feel any heat. 

On a side note, Leave No Trace www.LNT.org has seven guiding principles for the outdoors:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

They have some great content on these principles. Check out their website to learn more. 

When you are finished, please make sure that fire is out! Smoldering embers can be brought back to full flame with just a gust of wind. When Mojica was in college, his neighbor “put out” a cigarette in a dead potted plant (on his balcony). His neighbors left for dinner and an hour later the 8×8 cedar post next to the potted plant had 2-foot flames. Mojica did not have renter’s insurance, so he Spidermanned up to the neighbor’s balcony, had another neighbor toss up a fire extinguisher and he put out the fire. Soon after, a fire truck showed up and firemen, seeing the smoke, raced up to the door with battle axe in hand. Mojica explained he extinguished the fire and received a handshake from the Fire Chief. There are several lessons to be learned here. Always have renter’s insurance, ask for free rent when you save a building, …and always make sure your embers are fully out when dealing with fire or cigarettes. Smoking is bad for your health anyway; get to the outdoors and kick the habit.

Below are some more fire facts and basic safety tips: 

  • In 2015, wildfires burned a record 10 million acres of US wildlands. Each wildfire averaged 220 acres.
  • In 2016, wildfires claimed 5.5 million acres, including many in California and Great Smoky Mountains areas killing 14 people and damaging 2,400 buildings.
  • Wildfires are a natural phenomenon with lightning strikes, however studies show that 84-90% of wildfires are caused by humans
  • According to the National Parks Service, lightning strikes over 100,000 times a day and 10-20% of these strikes cause fire.
  • According to Lakehead University Faculty of Natural Resources Management, wildfires can be caused by spontaneous combustion of accumulated dead leaves, twigs, and trees…but this very rare.

If we reduce the amount of human-caused fires, then we are exponentially better able to manage the fires that occur naturally. Be responsible. Be respectful. Be safe.

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