Guest Article: To Build a Fire, by Bob A.

Okay, I admit it, I’m a Prepper.  The first time I read the Boy Scout Motto “Be Prepared”, I was hooked.  “Be prepared for what?” someone once asked Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, “Why, for any old thing.” said Baden-Powell.  My real awakening with the Boy Scout Handbook was my first introduction to fire.  Learning to make a basic campfire, a cook fire, bonfire and camp-fire television were the first tastes of what would prepare me for the future. I camped, earned merit badges and worked my way to First Class and Patrol leader all the while putting an end to cords and cords of wood with gusto.  Being a Scout taught me at a young age to think about prepping as a natural part of my life.  When I read Jack London’s epic story “To Build A Fire”, I understood that being unprepared can be the harshest schoolmaster.  So I began my life in the workaday world planning on being the one who was prepared.
Fast forward to ‘married with children’ and I can hear my patient, psych-majored, wife say, “prepping meets a basic need”.  In my mind, prepping meant to know ‘everything’ about being prepared.  It was important to understand not just how to prep, but what to prep for and to understand the root causes for why one had to prep.  Several books I read provided the best explanation of what was coming: 1) The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe, 2) Conquer the Crash by Robert Prechter, and 3) The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.   All three helped me understand what I was preparing for and instilled a real sense of urgency.  Knowing the why, I also pursued the how by reading: 1) Boy Scouts Handbook (First Edition, 1911), 2) The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery, and 3) How to Survive the End of the World As We Know It, by James Wesley, Rawles, the best among many others.

After years of reading books, articles and blogs, it slowly dawned on me that I would never know ‘everything’ about prepping, but at least I could know ‘everything’ about a couple of things.  My work consisted of designing and building process equipment, which requires large vessels called retorts that are used to heat mercury vapor, hydrocarbons and air to over 1000F.  The retorts are kept under a mild vacuum, to prevent the conditions for combustion and fire from ever happening. After more than ten years of designing and building retorts, I became interested in biomass gasifiers, which are in many ways, similar to retorts.  My prepping had led me to look at alternative fuels for our family’s two diesel fueled sedans.  Although already easy on fuel, I was interested in what alternatives there were to using straight diesel fuel.  Peanut oil, soybean oil, palm oil, coconut oil, used fryer oil, used motor oil, LP gas, compressed natural gas and producer gas are all mentioned as alternatives to diesel fuel.  Wait a second!  What is that last one – producer gas? It is fairly common to convert a diesel to run on LP and compressed natural gas, but what was producer gas?  As it turns out, producer gas is the result of burning biomass (basically wood) with insufficient air. In fact about ¼ of the normal amount of air necessary to completely burn wood will yield a smoky, but burnable producer gas consisting mostly of Carbon Monoxide (CO), Hydrogen (H2), Nitrogen (N2) and smoke (unburned hydrocarbons).  Producer gas from a gasifier must have the smoke reformed into producer gas before it can be piped directly into the intake of a diesel engine. This could reduce, but not completely replace the diesel fuel that the engine uses.  I was intrigued by the possibility that we could use biomass to power our diesels.  After studying biomass gasification for about two years, we built our first test gasifier.  It was a batch-type, stratified, downdraft gasifier, which we built with insulated, stainless steel chimney sections and small axial blower. It was a very simple, yet excellent way to learn more about biomass gasification.  With this test unit we gasified every type of biomass we could get our hands on – wood chips, wood pellets, sawdust, cocoa shells, wood shavings, paper, and dried distillers grains (don’t ask).  In addition to producer gas, the gasifier also yields a charcoal, also known as biochar, as a valuable byproduct.

Needless to say I was excited, but then my wife says I’m always excited about something or other, having been born fully caffeinated.  Now I could make producer gas and biochar simply and on demand.  With some development time, stainless steel fabrication, and a digital control system – I could see this becoming an entire new business.  I made a plan for our prototype and my faithful sidekick, Jake, drew up good looking solid model drawings, which he then built.  To our surprise, the unit worked and generated producer gas that we flared off in an impressive blue flame about two feet long.  To our amazement, we also got it to power a 5 kW gasoline generator which we converted to run on producer gas using the tri-fuel generator kit available from US Carburetion.  So I showed my wife the unit, showed her how it operated, the big beautiful blue flame, ran the generator and told her my idea of how this was the basis for a whole new business.  Her immediate response, “That’s great dear – but don’t quit your day job.” Well I haven’t given up mercury retorts, but I could tell by her enthusiastic response that she was behind me all the way. 

Soon after, young Jake and I were discussing gasifying the various types of biomass, whether hardwood, softwood, nutshells, paper, and grains, and how the process seemed to be straightforward. Our conversation got around to size and again how simple the process was to gasify average size wood chips, wood pellets and other “average” size biomass, just as we could easily gasify small size biomass like fine sawdust.  I mentioned to Jake the importance of testing the other extreme, to which he immediately shot back, “then gasify logs”.  Ouch! Now that smarted.  Wood blocks, can do; small branches, check; short 2×2 cutoffs, no problem; but logs, full size logs?  That little challenge from Jake, faithful apprentice and right-hand man, forced me to think about the real reason we were doing what we were doing.  We really needed to be prepared for the time when the gasoline, diesel fuel, LP and natural gas were gone.  The time when the natural gas pipelines were empty, when we had used the last of our LP tanks, and when our diesel fuel and gasoline tanks were empty.  What happens then?  How would that happen? Whether war, EMP, political upheaval, famine or plague – it matters little.  Because when you’re cold and it’s dark, no one is interested in motives or underlying causes, you just need heat and light. 

All that would be left as a renewable resource would be our firewood, but how can we effectively use firewood?  Normally, the traditional campfire can provide heat to warm you up, cook your food, dry your clothes, signal your location, and provide you with adequate light to see and read.  However, under abnormal situations involving the high stress of no shelter, extreme cold, deep snow, high winds and driving rain; building a fire can be a lifesaving, but tricky proposition especially for the inexperienced and unprepared.  This is the part where having read Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire” was crucial to my thought process.  If you never read it – now is a good time.   Just what does it take to properly build a fire in extreme conditions?  It requires: first, shelter from wind and cold surfaces like snow; second, a good quantity dry wood; third, some kindling consisting of dried wood cut in thin sections or slivers; fourth, some flammable tinder, which can catch and hold the smallest flame or spark; fifth, all-weather waterproof matches or flint and steel; sixth, knowing the process of assembling the wood, kindling and tinder that will enable you to start and maintain the fire; and seventh, practice.   The best campfire resource on the web that I’ve seen is The Campfire Dude who provides you with solid information matched with years of practical experience.  Making a campfire is not that easy, in fact it requires skill under good circumstances, and can be near impossible in high stress situations.  Add to that the fact that a campfire is absolutely the least efficient means to burn wood to generate warmth and you may well be permanently disappointed. 

Jake and I had learned that it was easy to gasify almost any biomass using our downdraft gasifier, as long as it had been nicely chipped, chopped, pelleted, trimmed, dried and graded for uniformity.  However to gasify logs required a completely different approach, we found a clue at the 2010 U.S. Biochar Initiative Conference at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. There we saw several versions of inverted downdraft stoves and were intrigued by one large unit in particular.  One big problem was that it required electric power and a blower to operate – we were not interested, as our unit had to operate without power.  Instead we developed an idea, which used the updraft heat from the fire to drive the necessary airflow to feed the fire in place of the electric blower. We designed the layout for our basic prototype from our initial calculations, which required that we place correctly sized openings for primary and secondary air and chimney. Proper location, sizing and spacing all were important, in that they determined, how fast the wood burned, how hot the fire got and how completely it burned the wood fuel.  We built our first unit and were again amazed that it worked at all.  Our testing used metal containers, which ranged from 5 gallon metal pails holding 12 inch long split wood to 30 gallon cans where we tested full sized logs. 

We discovered in our first test that:
1) The burn was extremely hot, enough so to warp the metal container,
2) The wood burned with no visible smoke except on startup,
3) 20 pounds of wood burned down to less than 5# of biochar, and
4) The burn lasted more than two and one-half hours. 

Thus was born our “Commence Fire!” Emergency Fire and Heat unit, which includes:  one 5 gallon shrink-wrapped container, chimney, 20# of hardwood pellets, tinder/fire starter, stormproof matches, metal cups, water pouches, single servings of tea and a reflective Mylar blanket. 

To operate the Commence Fire!, first strip off the shrink wrapping, remove the shrink tube from inside the chimney, firmly pull the chimney completely up until it locks in place, charge the unit with the tinder/firestarter mix by pushing it completely down the chimney, remove a stormproof match from its package, light it and immediately drop it down chimney. 

Within five minutes of opening the shrink wrap, your fire should be well established. Next fill a cup with water and in a few more minutes you will have boiling water ready for hot tea.  Immediately search for about 100 pieces of small diameter logs and branches that are dead but still off the ground, and which you are able to break into 12” lengths using your hands or feet.  Lean the accumulated wood, even if wet, on the Commence Fire! unit to get it dry – as you will be using this wood as a continuing source of fire.  It is also recommended that you stack rocks up around the outside of the container to be heated and later brought into your tent or sleeping bag for long lasting warmth. Proper positioning of the Mylar blanket enables you to shield yourself from wind and rain, while reflecting heat from the backside of the unit.

You probably know that you can remain conscious for only three minutes without air. You may not know that you are likely to remain conscious for only three hours without adequate shelter and heat in extreme cold and wet conditions.  To reverse the effects of exposure and hypothermia you need the means to provide heat and shelter to reduce exposure and the means of increasing your core temperature by drinking warm liquids. With the Commence Fire! you have a unit with everything you need to start and maintain a fire in any weather and to provide shelter and warm liquids fast, especially when it is pre-positioned and ready in your BOV, retreat, cabin, boat, or cache.

Indoors, most folks believe that their fireplaces will be their backup heat. But the harsh reality is that a fireplace can be only slightly more efficient than a campfire in extracting heat from wood.

JWR Adds: The author makes an interesting new stove and tinder kit dubbed Commence Fire! It will soon be reviewed in SurvivalBlog by Pat Cascio. It is notable that the kit is specially dry-packaged for use in an emergency, so the contents stay dry, even if its shipping box gets soaking wet. Here is a demonstration of a Commence Fire! kit. 

Disclaimer (per FTC File No. P034520): I accept cash-paid advertising. To the best of my knowledge, as of the date of this posting, none of the companies mentioned in this article have solicited me or paid me to write any reviews or endorsements, nor have they provided me any free or reduced-price gear in exchange for any reviews or endorsements. I’ve been told that they will be providing Pat with one of their kits for test and evaluation, but nothing else. I am not a stock holder in any company.