02 December 2011

Light My Fire, Baby!

Dear Lissy,
There are few things in this life that I enjoy more than a good fire.  Whether it's a mesmerizing flicker under a starry August sky, or a stove with it's belly full heating up my home, count me in.  Despite what you see in movies, you can't light a log with a match.  After nearly 20 years watching and learning from Dad, here's what does work.

Finding a spot. . .
If you're in a park, there are most likely designated fire rings or fireplaces where you can build.  Clear all the old ash and wood so that the air will flow freely both under and around the fire.  
If you are on someone's land, including your own, you need a fire permit.  Clear a 3 foot diameter circle right down to the dirt.  Set the duff, needles, and other detritus carefully aside so that it can be placed back over the fire pit when you leave.  Don't try to ring the circle with rocks:  rocks can explode when heated beside a fire, especially if they've gotten wet recently.

Laying a fire. . .
There are three things you need to build a fire:  air, fuel, and ignition.  The fuel is further broken down into tinder, kindling, and wood.

Tinder is dry, combustible material that easily takes a spark.
Matchstick sized dry twigs, pine cones, paper, and even Fritos will easily light with a match. In an emergency, I've even used shredded birchbark from a fallen log.  I prefer to carry a tin of large cotton balls that have been coated in antibiotic ointment.  When turned inside out and "fluffed" they light easily and burn for up to 5 minutes.  
A baseball cap's worth of matchstick sized twigs and pine cones is more than sufficient to get a fire going.  

Kindling is wood that is between pencil and finger width around.  It ignites easily when held to a flame, but will not light reliably with just a spark or match.
Kindling can be harvested from the land around the fire, but dry kindling is worth bringing if the weather has been rainy or wet.  We pick up kindling at a local furniture factory that has a dumpster free for the picking.  It is kiln dried hardwood, so it lights easily and burns hot.  In a pinch, you can shave small pieces off of kindling to make tinder for your fire.  Don't harvest kindling directly off the ground.  Choose sticks that are sticking up in the air on fallen logs or branches.  Break kindling into about 16" pieces.  You will need up to a couple of dozen kindling sticks varying in width from pencil size right up to finger width.

Firewood is wood that has been cut, dried, and split for use in a campfire or wood stove.
Look for firewood that is 18-24" long, very dry, and split.  Bark is a natural fire retardant, so the more interior wood that's exposed, the better it will catch and burn.  Pine doesn't burn clean or hot:  choose hardwoods for the best fire.  An ax or hatchet can be used to split larger pieces, too.  We generally either use very large pieces of kindling or chop a piece of firewood down to wrist-sized pieces to place on the newly started fire.  It is unpleasant to have to get up from a fire to collect or chop more wood.  Have your wood collected/purchased, split, and stacked before lighting the fire.

I prefer the shed or lean-to style fire lay as it's easy to build, light, and maintain.
  • Place a large piece of firewood directly on the ground.
  • Place a pile of tinder directly in front of the log. (1)
  • Form a lean-to over the tinder with the kindling. (2)
  • Slide the Vaseline soaked cotton ball, potato chip, or other firestarter into the side of the tinder pile.
  • Light the firestarter with a match, lighter, or flint.
  • If necessary, blow gently to help the kindling ignite from the burning tinder.
  • Lay smaller pieces of firewood the same way as you laid the kindling once the kindling has caught. (3)
  • Adding wood that is too big, too quickly creates LOTS of smoke.
  • Once the fire is well established, continue adding increasingly larger pieces of wood, always seeking to maintain an airspace.
A few notes. . .
  • Build fires lays up, not out.  As a general rule, the fire lay should be about knee high on an adult.
  • ALWAYS have three ways to light a fire on your person:  matches, lighter, firesteel, etc.
  • Collect tinder, kindling, and fuel before you start your fire.  Campfires and cooking fires should never be doused with liquid fuel to accelerate ignition.
  • A cooking fire is quite small or the cook gets cooked.
  • Fry over fire, cook over coals.  In order to use a frying pan, you need flames.  Almost any other cooking requires a bed of coals.  To make a good bed of coals for roasting/cooking, add a lot of dry firewood all at once to an established fire, and then let it burn down to coals.
  • A camping fire meant to provide light, a little heat, and deter bugs/critters should be fed just one log at a time.
  • If wood is damp or wet, stand it up beside the fire to dry out.  
  • Put fires COLD OUT with water, and then shovel the ashes into the dirt below.  You should be able to set your hand into the fire ring before you leave.
The same rules hold true for a wood stove or fireplace.  Start with a good bed of tinder (crumpled paper and twigs work fine) and small kindling.  Make sure the flue and dampers are wide open. Light the paper in several places. Add large kindling/small firewood at first, and gradually increase the size of the fuel until full sized logs catch and burn easily.  Once the fire is well established, shut down the air supply to throw more heat out into the room.  Don't try to use the "movie method" and place full sized logs on a bed of newspaper or you'll just fill the house with smoke.

I hope you'll have many happy hours in front of a fire.  It's immensely satisfying to start a fire quickly and keep it going. As you gain skill you'll learn tricks for starting wet wood, starting a fire in the rain, and even which wood burns well green (ash, around here).  I've heard that a wood burning fireplace or stove and a screened in porch are the two "must have" items to make a house feel like a home -- I definitely agree!


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