Two Letters Re: Fire, The Flame of Life

TSK’s article on fire was well written; however, I would like to add a few items and clarify a few things for the novice fire starter. I teach fire starting as part of a larger course, and one of the things that I think needs to be stressed is the difference between flame and fire. When you strike a match, or use any of the other starting methods listed, all you have is a flame. In order to turn a flame into a fire you need to first build a proper fire bed, typically using any of the methods discussed in the article. Some additional tinder (fine dry grass or wood shavings), kindling (sticks from the size of your little finger to the size of your thumb), and finally fuel (about the size of your wrist or larger. The idea is that the flame starts the additional tinder, which lights the kindling, which can generate enough heat to light the larger fuel. I have too often seen a student get so excited about starting a fire without using a match, that all of the concentration was placed there, only to get a flame going with no real place to put it to use. Additionally, you should have some extra fuel collected, before starting anything.

There are a few additional starting methods and devices I have used.

* Hand Drill
o Pro: Made with materials from nature. Anything that gets broken or damaged can easily be replaced or repaired.
o Con: Not an easy way to start a fire even for someone who is practiced, a lot of practice is required in mastering and becoming proficient with this method, which is a cross between the bow & drill and the fire plow.

* Fire Piston
o Pro: Must be produced ahead of time. Can be home built rather easily. Works well with just a little practice.
o Con: Contains moving parts which can break. Requires a supply of char cloth.

* Road Flare
o Pro: Will start nearly any fire even with wet wood. Typically used for real emergency situation only.
o Con: Must be replaced after each use. Most contain sulfur and the fire needs to burn for a while before using it for direct cooking.

Gerber Strike Force which is another version of flint and steel and has the same pros and cons listed in the original article.

The Strike Force (with a dry container of cotton dryer lint) is my favorite fire starter with both a Swedish Fire Steel and a Magnesium block for backup. I’ve been doing flint and steel for decades, but only found out about the fire piston in the past few years. We can all still learn new things when we pay attention. For more details on making char cloth or making and using the fire piston, do a search for them on YouTube and you’ll have numerous videos to watch. The fire piston has been around for a long time and was evidently the inspiration for Rudolf Diesel to create the engine of the same name. – LVZ in Ohio

TSK’s article ‘Fire, The Flame of Life’was excellent, but it is unfortunately incomplete. TSK says “ In a survival situation the light and smoke for a fire can be very beneficial as a signaling device for search and rescue if you desire to be found. ” (emphasis mine) The point that is missed is that fire and smoke are very effective signal devices (fire night, smoke day) whether or not you desire to be found. Building smokeless fires is an art and limiting light escape is also an art. There is a reason “black out curtains” were used on ships and buildings during war times. In a really dark site, a cigarette lighter can be seen quite literally for miles. By personal experience I know of a case of one being seen for seven miles in the Mekong Delta. I was looking from my helicopter and they were signaling trying to attract our attention but the point is we found them. If you don’t want to be found, the Dakota fire pit, the use of overhead foliage to break up smoke, proper selection of wood, etc. all come into play. We teach our kids how to be found. Rarely do we teach how not to be found. A read through some of the historical type narratives of the old west where discovery by hostile forces meant death can be enlightening. (As an aside, many of Louis L’Amour’s novels contain accurate survival information.) Another issue is that we have a tendency to gaze into our fires at night. Probably some throwback to the days of the cave when fire meant safety. Unfortunately, what that means is that we are night blind for quite some time after. Is the noise in the trees a rescue party or a hungry bear? It might be nice to be able to see and be sure. Big fires are comforting but waste wood/fuel and blind everyone around the fire while sending out locating beacons for anyone interested in looking. One key skill to be learned is to build a fire of the proper size [for the task at hand], no larger and no smaller. This is a mark of the woodsman and is to be cultivated. TSK is correct, fire is critical. But how we build and use it marks us as a either rank tenderfoot or as someone who has a grasp on reality in the wild.
Keep up the great work on the site and thanks to all of the contributors. They give us much to think about. Regards, – Captain Bart