by Richard Grimes
No discover since the beginning of time has been more important to the development of mankind, then the discovery of Fire. The simple presence of fire added to the routinely “normal” day in the outdoors instantly adds the feeling of safety to any situation. In any severe or extreme condition, the presence of fire literally means life.
There are many ways to start a fire. They all have the same effect. The Boy Scout Handbook states, “A fire can warm you, cook your meals, and dry your clothes. Bright flames lift your spirits on rainy mornings. On a starry night, glowing embers stir your imagination.” (Birkby) The base items needed to build all fires are, Tinder, Kindling, and Fuel. Each of these must be collected and be prepared before any attempt to build the fire.
These three items are common to all fires. Tinder is material that catches fire easily and burns fast. Wood shavings, pine needles, dry grasses, shredded bark and the fluff from seed pods all make good tinder. You should gather enough to fill a hat.
Kindling is dry, dead twigs no thicker than a pencil. Gather enough to fill a hat twice. Fuel, fuelwood can be as thin as your finger or as thick as your arm. Gather dry dead sticks and limbs. When gathering fuelwood remember these three rules.
One, you must always have at least 3 sticks in the fire at a time or it will go out. Two, if you want to burn one, 3” stick, you need to have three 1” sticks burning first. Three, gather twice as much fuelwood then you think you’ll need. Once you have all of these items collected you are ready to begin building your fire.
In every case covered below, you will use your “source” to ignite the tinder, which will ignite the kindling, which will ignite the fuelwood. The effect is always the same regardless of the cause of the initial item(s) used to generate the initial ember, spark or flame that actually starts the fire as these take many forms.
Most Common Ignitors
The most common and easiest items used to start fires are matches and cigarette lighters. Matches work by striking them against a special surface in order to get them to ignite. The match heads contain sulfur (sometimes antimony III sulfide) and oxidizing agents (usually potassium chlorate), with powdered glass, colorants, fillers, and a binder made of glue and starch.
The striking surface consists of powdered glass or silica (sand), red phosphorus, binder, and filler. When you strike a safety match, the glass-on-glass friction generates heat, converting a small amount of red phosphorus to white phosphorus vapor. White phosphorus spontaneously ignites, decomposing potassium chlorate and liberating oxygen.
At this point, the sulfur starts to burn, which ignites the wood of the match. (about.com/chemistry).
Cigarette lighters work by rotating a steel wheel that is in contact with a flint. When the wheel is turned the flint produces a spark which ignites the stored fuel in the lighter creating a flame.
Either of these when applied to the Tinder will result in a fire being started.
Metal Fire Starters
Magnesium and flint fire starters are also very common. A piece of flint approximately 1/8” x 3” will be attached to a piece of magnesium that is approximately 5/8” x 1” x 3”. It works by scraping a small amount of the magnesium from the block onto your tinder. (Magnesium burns at 5000 degrees Fahrenheit.)
You then want to strike the flint in a manner to create a spark that will be thrown into the magnesium and tinder. This is done by holding the bottom of your knife blade directly over the tinder and magnesium.
You then place the top rear portion of the starter against your knife blade. Then holding the fire starter firmly with under your knife blade you draw the started backward quickly. This produces a spark that flies forward from you knife blade into the tinder and magnesium.
If you attempt the hold the starter still and create the spark by moving your knife forward across the starter you will most likely know the tinder all over the place.
Wet Weather Starters
Wet weather creates a particular challenge when trying to start a fire. I have found that taking cotton balls and coating them with Vaseline works wonderfully in wet weather. You can fit about 10 coated cotton balls in a 35mm film can. They work by removing one cotton ball from the can and stretching it out until the cotton ball is very thin. Using any of the above methods to light the cotton ball will result in a small steady flame that will burn upwards to 8 minutes.
Lightning was probably the cause of the first fire that man ever got to enjoy. If you have got the time, lightning may start your next fire for you too. Otherwise, it would be smart to be prepared with a few of the items listed here to help you build your next fire. It could well mean the difference between life and death for you.