Summer is upon us and for us here at Highland Heights that means a lot of campfires. We love the warmth and light put off a campfire at night and the great flavor the wood imparts our food when we cook. Here at the farm we typically will cook over a fire 3-4 times a week. It is by far our favorite way to cook this time of year. We build lots of different fires and thought it would be fun to do a small series of posts about the art of firecraft. Understanding firecraft can be a huge benefit.
I can remember a time while hiking the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee, it had been raining all day we had hiked around 15 miles and finally, we made it to that nights shelter. It was supposed to snow that night so we were trying to build a fire without much success. Every piece of wood we found was way to wet to light. A short while later a woman showed up at the shelter and proceeded to show us the art of firecraft. She seemingly built a fire out of nothing and soon we had a nice warm fire going. I was in awe that she was able to build us a fire. I thought I was competent back then about my fire making skill, oh so little did I know.
Fire has many uses such as to purify water, sterilize bandages, signal for rescue, drive animals from their homes, efficiently modify the landscape, smoke and preserve food, softening tar for adhesives, making charcoal for medicinal purposes, and provide protection from insects and animals. Fire not only cooks and preserves food, it also provides warmth in the form of heated food that saves calories our body normally uses to produce body heat. It can be a psychological boost by providing warmth, peace of mind, and companionship.
Basic Fire Principles
To build a fire, it helps to understand the basic principles of a fire. Fuel, such as wood, does not burn directly. When you apply heat to a fuel, it produces a gas. This gas, combined with oxygen in the air, burns. For instance, when wood is heated to about 300 degrees Farenheit, the heat decomposes some of the cellulose material that makes up wood. This decomposed material is released as a gas (e.g. smoke made of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen). The rest of the material forms char or ash (which is almost pure carbon). The gases burn, which forms more heat, which causes more gas to be released, and so on until all of the fuel is exhausted..
Understanding the concept of the fire triangle is very important in correctly constructing and maintaining a fire. The three sides of the triangle represent air, heat, and fuel. If you remove any of these, the fire will go out. The correct ratio of these components is very important for a fire to burn at its greatest capability. The only way to learn this ratio is to practice.
Preparing the Fire
If you are in a wooded or brush-covered area, clear the brush by scraping the surface soil from the spot you have selected. If the fire site is in grass, cut away the turf (save the turf to put back later). Clear a circle at least 1 meter (3 feet) in diameter so there is little chance of the fire spreading. Bare rock is an ideal site for a fire.
If time allows, construct a fire wall using logs or rocks. This wall will help to reflect or direct the heat where you want it. It will also reduce flying sparks and cut down on the amount of wind blowing into the fire. However, you will need enough wind to keep the fire burning.
Fire Material Selection
You need three types of materials to build a fire.
Shredded inner bark from cedar, chestnut, red elm trees
Fine wood shavings
Dead grass, ferns, moss
Punk (rotted portions of dead logs or trees)
Evergreen tree knots
Bird down (fine feathers)
Down seed heads (milkweed, dry cattails, thistle)
Fine, dried vegetable fibers
Dead palm leaves
Skin-like membrane lining bamboo
Lint from pockets or seams
Small strips of wood
Lighter knot from pine tree stumps with resin
Wood doused with gasoline, oil, or wax
Pieces of wood removed from larger pieces
Dry, standing wood and dry, dead branches
Dry inside (heart) of fallen tree trunks and large branches
Green wood that is finely split
Dry grasses twisted into bunches
Dried animal dung
Coal, oil shale, or oil lying on ground surface
Tinder is dry material that ignites with little heat or spark and lights a fire. The tinder must be absolutely dry to be sure just a spark will ignite it. You are looking for a thin material with a large surface area. The best wood from trees are the dead branches that have not fallen off yet.
If you have a device that generates only sparks, charred cloth (called charcloth or char cloth) will be almost essential. Charcloth holds a spark for long periods, allowing you to put tinder on the hot area to generate a small flame. You can make charred cloth by heating cotton cloth until it turns black, but does not burn. It can also be created by placing cotton cloth in a tin and and setting the tin into a campfire. Once it is black, you must keep it in an airtight container to keep it dry.
If tinder is hard to find, you can make a feather stick. A feather stick is a piece of wood that has been shaved to produce a head of thin curls of wood. Feather sticks are made from dead, standing wood such as a dead branch on a tree. The bark is removed to expose the dry heartwood. Then it is shaved with a knife to produce as many curls as possible. The finer the curls, the more easily the feather stick will ignite. If charcloth is available, you can wrap the charcloth around the curls so that the spark will stick to the char cloth. Then blow on the spark to ignite the fire.
Kindling is readily combustible material that you add to the burning tinder. It is bigger than tinder but smaller than fuel wood. Again, this material should be absolutely dry to ensure rapid burning. Kindling increases the fire’s temperature so that it will ignite less combustible material (i.e. the fuel wood).
Fuel is less combustible material that burns slowly and steadily once ignited.
Extinguishing the fire
Leaving a fire unattended can be dangerous. Ash is a very good insulator, so embers left overnight will only lose a fraction of their heat. It is even possible to restart the new day’s fire by using the embers as an igniting device.
Large amounts of water can be very useful for extinguishing a fire. To properly cool a fire, water should be splashed on all the embers, including places that are not glowing red. The water should be poured until the hissing noises stop. Then the ashes should be stirred with a stick to make sure that the water has penetrated all the layers; if the hissing continues, more water should be added. A fire is fully extinguished if the ashes are cool to the touch.
If water is scarce, sand may be used. The sand will deprive the fire of oxygen quite well, but it is much less effective than water at absorbing heat. Once the fire has been covered thoroughly with sand, all water that can be spared should be poured on it, and the sand stirred into the ash.
When winter or “ice” camping with an inch or more of snow on the ground, neither of the above protocols are necessary—simply douse visible flames before leaving.
Note: Burying a fire can still be dangerous. It can light roots of trees and start forest fires.