Fire is central to survival. First and foremost, its heat helps maintain body temperature. Failure to regulate the warmth of the body’s core ranks as one of the most common causes of death in the wild. Knowing how to make fire can spell the difference between life and death.
In assessing the need for fire, it is best to follow the Boy Scout and Girl Scout motto: Be prepared. As Saint-Exupéry discovered, even the Sahara can become dangerously cold.
Fire has a variety of uses that are key to survival. Heat provides physical and mental comfort. Light and smoke attract attention over great distances, calling to search and rescue teams. A bright blaze drives away potential predators and pests. Heat dries clothes. Heat kills parasites in food and makes most animal and vegetable matter easier to chew and digest. Hot food also helps warm the body, stretching the calories that must be burned to maintain core temperature. Smoke and heat from a fire dry food to preserve it for later consumption. Fire can bake handmade clay cooking pots and harden or shape wood for tools or weapons. Fire boils water, sterilizing it for drinking and medical uses.
Fire also poses potential hazards. Untended, it can set a forest or grassland ablaze, threatening the lives it had been created to save. And the gaseous byproducts of combustion, left unvented in an enclosed space such as a tightly sealed tent, can cause suffocation.
FIRE’S THREE VARIABLES
Fire has three components: fuel, air, and heat. Adjust the three variables to fit your purpose. More air makes a brighter signal fire. Less air tamps the flames, producing hot coals and extending the fire’s duration. Different fuels produce different forms of smoke. Dark smoke is good for signaling during daytime, especially against a background of snow or sand. Light smoke stands out against dark trees, such as those in a coniferous forest.
TYPES OF FIREWOOD
Tinder and kindling start a blaze. Tinder is anything that glows upon accepting a spark. Natural sources include anything that is bone dry and has a high ratio of surface area to volume. Woody sources include birch bark and tiny sticks whose surface has been feathered with a knife. Other sources are burdock and cattail heads, moss, and dry leaves and grass.
Kindling—sticks the thickness of a pencil—will start to catch as tinder burns. As the fire grows, introduce increasingly larger kindling to expand the flames. Building the fire gradually ensures it will stay lit and get hot enough to ignite larger fuel.
Softwoods, like pine, burn quickly. Hardwoods, like maple, burn the longest and the hottest.
BUILDING A FIRE IN RAIN
Don’t let a little rain stop you. Use sticks and rope to set up a tarp at an angle over your fire site, close to the ground, but high enough that flames won’t burn it once your fire is lit.
Split a thick pine log to build a fire from the dry interior side. Once lit, the resin will burn even in direct rain. Holding the log under the tarp, dig into the dry inner part to shave off dry tinder. Unless the log has been long submerged, the inside will be dry. Collect kindling from areas sheltered from rain such as under dense brush.
OTHER TYPES OF FUEL
Alternative sources of fuel include dried animal dung, peat, and coal. Also, engine oil, antifreeze, and tires burn and give off heavy black smoke. If natural tinder is scarce, try rubbing petroleum jelly into cotton balls or pocket lint.
In the Libyan desert, Saint-Exupéry burned the splintered wing of his air- plane using gas drained from the engine. He added bits of magnesium from the other wing to create a bright, white flame visible over immense distances.
A star-shaped fire of hardwood logs will burn for hours. To make a star fire, arrange four logs in the shape of a “plus” or cross sign, and set fire in the center. As the ends of the logs burn away, push the logs closer together to maintain the flames, or leave them apart to create coals for cooking.
Fires should never be left unattended. Make sure to put out the fire by sprinkling with water and stirring with a stick until the coals are not hot.