Sunday, December 20, 2009

Saga, part 6, Fire

Building and maintaining a good fire is somewhat of an art. Most of the time for good times, hot dogs and marshmallows any old fire will do, and most people can get one going if not with at least a little bit of struggle.

But it's different if you really need a fire for cooking or warmth, and need it to last. Or like me, you just really enjoy building and maintaining a good fire. The difference is that it will be hotter, and it will more easily and efficiently use all of its fuel.

The most important words are "build," "teepee" and "maintain." If you build it properly to begin with, before you strike the match, you won't be "keeping it going" all night, you'll be maintaining what you built.

That old adage of building it like a teepee is exactly right. You don't want it "kind of like" one, you want it just like one, except you want it fairly solid. Starting at the center with the easiest thing you have to ignite, outward to the most difficult.

If you have something that's very easy to ignite like a little bit of fatlighter*, some store-bought firestarter or a book of matches with a lit cigarette stuck in it, then begin by making a very small bed for it out of something that fluffs or crinkles. Grass, leaves, etc., even something moist will do if you have nothing else, you're just getting some airflow up under it. If you're using paper, then that's what the bed will be, with some short twigs piled on top of it to hold it down a bit.

If dried grass or something is your starter, ball it up tightly - it needs airflow, but not much - and make it the small center of your build.

Also for grass or paper (-like things) you can jamb your first layer of small sticks into the ground a little to hold the balled-up shape.

Then start with your smallest, driest sticks and break a bunch of them just long enough to lean over the small pile and touch each other, and create a layer. Make it fairly thick, remember it needs air but not a whole lot. You can smother it, but it's not real easy to do. Remember to leave a small gap somewhere to reach through and light it when you're finished (and remember to keep the gap going). Then break some more that are just long enough to reach over that and touch. Keep that process going, building with longer and thicker pieces of wood as you go. If you have enough small stuff, fill in between the taller pieces in each layer with more short. Make sure that you keep the structure itself snugly intact as you go. By the time you start adding your big stuff, your split logs or whatever, you should easily be able to lean one against it. Go ahead and build a layer of logs, this is your one chance to make a nice, solid structure out of them too before they're hot.

Now reach in there and light the center. If you built it right, it will catch as quickly as your starter allows and then build up and outward rapidly.

The whole time it's burning, maintain the teepee shape, but fiddle with the coals as much as you can refrain from it. If you do that perfectly all night, this is what will happen:
As the wood burns it will gently and gradually fall toward the center.
Each falling layer will create a slightly taller central bed of coals that will hold up the next layer, maintaining the shape naturally.
The natural piling of the coals will keep the just-right amount of air that it needs (when you poke at it you smother it with the ashes that are underneath).
The very outside layer, and the portions of wood that aren't yet burning, creates an oven effect, keeping the coals hotter. This results in more heat for you, and a more efficient use of the available fuel.
You'll see each piece of wood wind up as a little, glowing wedge between the taller pieces, pointing at the center. If you're going to keep the fire going a long time, they'll just become coals as the bed grows. If not, nudge them gently into the center.

If you do it "just right" you won't be poking at it all night, wondering why it won't stay going. All you'll do is add 3 or 4 logs in a triangle over it from time to time. It will burn as hot and as long as is possible with the fuel available.

Which, with the limited amount of kindling I had, and the extremely dry state of the split logs I'd purchased, turned out to be about an hour and a half.

That's just as well, really. I can tend and watch a fire until the sun comes up, and enjoy it way more than TV, but on this night I wanted to get some sleep and wake up early.

I cooked hot dogs on a stick, black and cracked, and then ate half a bag of marshmallows, roasted obviously. I tended my fire and watched pine logs go up like gunpowder. I burned what I had, and when it was gone I packed up the rest of my food in grocery bags, double-bagged, and laid it all right up against the outside of my tent. The inside was already getting short on space, and I had to prioritize which things I would least want to have wet if it rained. Living as I was, I knew that if it started raining and my stuff got wet, it might stay that way for a while. The food was wrapped up in plastic anyway, and the most easily replaceable stuff. (This is known as foreshadowing.)

I crawled into my sleeping bag and easily fell into a deep, wonderful sleep. I sometimes wake up momentarily when I roll over or something, and each time I did that night I smiled, loving the feeling of the outside air. Feeling pretty good about the direction I was heading. One time I thought I heard rustling.

* "Fatlighter," also known as fatwood or lighter wood, is the resinous core of a pine tree. It ignites very easily, and burns hot enough to light the rest of your fuel on fire. Many store-bought firestarters are made from it, and so is turpentine. You can often scout around and find the stump of a fallen pine tree and harvest some of its core. To recognize it, it is denser than the surrounding wood, has an oily appearance and feels sticky (it will make a mess of you, and it's hard to wash off). It's a deep, brownish red, and has a distinctive, strong and sweet smell... kind of like Pinesol with a few drops of diesel in it. Its density means it doesn't burn very quickly, so you don't need to use much of it (if you have plenty, you can use more, larger pieces if the rest of your wood is wet). A few splinters as your build's center, and maybe a few longer pieces in your first layer should be enough. It burns with a thick, oily, black smoke, so it's probably a good idea to let it all burn away before you cook over your fire.

You can also cut a deep notch into a pine tree, or cut off a limb, and set up some kind of vessel to catch the thick, sticky sap that will bleed out of it. This sap is also highly flammable, so you can dip your kindling into it for easier lighting.
Use this method only in a survival situation. I don't want to start finding big notches cut into all the trees when I go to parks, and it will take a few days to get much of it anyway.

...And now you know why pine forests burn so quickly in forest fires.

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