Fire can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency situation. Weather conditions will affect fire-making, and being able to produce a sustainable fire with marginal materials in a variety of weather conditions is an important skill.
The Sure-Fire Fire Starter
We recommend that you carry a “sure-fire” fire-starting product such as Mini Inferno or Micro Inferno. Natural sure-fire tinders include pine-resin-laden fatwoods and birch barks. Even if they’re wet, these kinds of tinders will burn and help you get a fire going, even if some of the firewood and kindling is damp.
We also recommend that you carry several methods of sparking a fire. The traditional cigarette lighter will fail in extremely cold or wet and windy conditions, but a ferrocerium rod, which is made of various mischmetals (an alloy of rare earth metals) and magnesium, will provide thousands of strikes in any weather condition with a shower of sparks as hot as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Your objective for WFA and survival purposes is to be able to create a sustainable fire in five minutes or less. A sustainable fire is a fire that is burning fuel of at least 1" in diameter, which means you can walk away for a moment and not fear the fire suddenly going out. There are many reasons you want to be able to make a fire within five minutes, but the most common is for hypothermia prevention. The longer it takes to make the fire in hypothermic conditions, the harder it will be to make, as your body will begin to shut down. That also means potentially crucial time will be lost before you can rewarm frostbitten extremities and drink water, which may need to be boiled first.
Tinder selection is important when it comes to making a fire quickly. Tinder is not your “sure-fire”; it is a means to effect surefire. Ideally tinder is dry natural material from the surrounding landscape. Cedar bark, fibrous plants, tall dead grasses, pine needles, and wood shavings are all viable options. Kindling is comprised of sticks ranging in size from the diameter of pencil lead up to about 1" thick. This is the material you will use to create fast, intense heat to combust your fuel sticks. The amount of kindling you collect should be about the size of a basketball, a pile you could carry under your arm.
Building A Bird's Nest
The first step is to create a “bird’s nest” with these materials. Your sure-fire device is the “egg” in the center. The size of the nest will vary depending on your experience level, but for true emergency situations such as survival or WFA, remember, “As big as your head, or your fire is dead.” This means you want a bird’s nest as big as your face to give your sure-fire the best conditions possible to create a decent flame capable of combusting your kindling.
Avoid putting on more fuel until the flames reach a height of at least 2" above what’s currently burning. This will happen quickly if you have laid your fire properly. Once this occurs, you’re ready to add your fuel sticks, and you are on your way to having a sustainable fire capable of staving off hypothermia, boiling water, and much more.
Practice makes perfect, and fire making is something you’ve got to be good at in the wild. The more you work at it, under different conditions and at different times of the year, the better you’ll get. At the heart of fire making is understanding what the fire needs — is it fuel or oxygen? Spend time before you build your fire thinking about the optimum place to put it. It should be far enough from your shelter not to pose a fire hazard but not so far away that you can’t easily utilize it and tend to it.
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Excerpted from Bushcraft First Aid: A Field Guide to Wilderness Emergency Care by Dave Canterbury and Jason A. Hunt. Used by permission of the publisher, Adams Media, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.