Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the February 12, 2017 Newsletter issued from Rancho Regensis north of Valladolid, Yucatán, MÉXICO

This is especially for those in the future dystopia who may need a small fire, but who may lack commercial fire starters and properly cured firewood, and may have no idea where to start.

If you have a pot with a wire handle atop it, you can build your fire beneath a tripod, with the pot suspended over the fire. If you have a skillet, something like a wire rack from an abandoned refrigerator can be positioned atop the rocks, and the fire built beneath the skillet resting on the rack. My current morning campfires are like the latter, except that I'm using homemade adobe blocks instead of three rocks, as shown below:


For building campfires, nothing is more important than this:

Understand how campfires function so you can use whatever fuel is at hand to build them, under many different conditions.

Fire feeds on oxygen in the air, so air should have easy access to your fuel. As you arrange your fuel, visualize the fire heating up the air, which rises above the flames, sucking in more air from the sides. My current campfires with three sides closed by adobe bricks has air rushing in from the open side, so the fuel is arranged so that air can freely pass into the fire's heart.

If you can't ignite a flame by striking steel against flint, or rubbing sticks together, you need matches and you must keep them dry. Having no matches, one option is to remove a convex lens from your binoculars or a telescope, and focus sunlight onto dry paper.

Unless your fuel is saturated with some kind of easily inflammable substance, such as the resin in pine wood, you can't just put a match to a large item and expect it to burn -- not even large pieces of dry, well cured wood. You should begin with a small heap of thin pieces of fuel, like wood shavings, small twigs, shreds of paper or dry leaves.

My first step in building a fire usually is to place on the ground in the future fire's center something about the size of an egg, maybe an unburned hunk of charcoal from a past fire, around which I build a little teepee of elongated pieces of easy-to-ignite fuel, usually shavings and slivers of wood. Over this highly combustible teepee I position slightly larger pieces of fuel, more or less continuing with the teepee strategy, but making sure I'm not blocking air access, or my own access to the interior with a match. Below, you can see a campfire at the moment when its interior teepee, partly composed of dry cardboard, has just caught fire but the larger pieces haven't:

campfire's first flame

When you forage for campfire fuel keep in mind your need for pieces varying in size from tiny to large. You may need to cut or chop large pieces into small ones. Machetes are perfect for that job because they can both chop through thick stems and logs, and shave off thin flakes and slender slivers. In the picture below, a machete is being used to cut slender splinters off a log. Note how the machete's tip is being pounded, causing the blade to slice downward following the wood's grain.
cutting with a machete
The idea is that once the structure's interior of small pieces starts burning, the larger pieces over them will catch fire, and once they're burning, the larger pieces over them also will catch, on and on until your biggest pieces atop the structure get so hot that they'll also burst into flame. Once the interior teepee is burning, the fire can be encouraged by fanning air onto the pile. Keep a stiff piece of cardboard handy, or get on your hands and knees and blow.

At this point, if you intend to keep the campfire burning for a long time, you can arrange larger sticks so that each one has a burning end in the fire. As the sticks convert to ash, you can keep nudging them toward the center, replenishing the fuel there.

Your luck in starting the fire depends very much on what kind of fuel you've gathered. Old tree twigs and splinters of wood that have absorbed humidity may not want to burn, even if their surfaces are dry. Especially during rainy seasons when the air is especially humid, if at all possible prepare for your campfires by storing dry fuel in sheltered places. If you don't have a shelter, cover dry fuel with a plastic sheet and secure the sides. At the peak of our rainy season, even apparently dry paper doesn't want to burn.

If you really need a fire and have trouble getting it going, you might consider adding a bit of plastic to it -- trash plastic being omnipresent in the future dystopic landscape. Burning plastic releases chemicals you don't want coming in contact with your water and food but, if you're desperate, a little plastic amid more desirable fuel can get most uncooperative campfires going. As plastic melts, it drips its highly inflammable, oil-like petrochemical base onto your fire, feeding it. Sometimes as a plastic source I've used the thin, transparent plastic of bottles in which purified water is sold.

Super-efficient, wood-burning stoves often sold on survivalist web sites generally have the same drawback: They don't permit the easy manipulation of fuel. If you're burning what you can scavenge, each piece of fuel has its own inflammability, size and shape, so each piece has its own best place in the campfire's construction. Super-efficient stoves emphasize the flow of air but overlook your need to fiddle with the fuel.

Once you've finished with a campfire, remember that the embers can smolder flamelessly for a long time, being a fire hazard. Scattering the fire's remaining coals and dousing them with water or covering them thoroughly with dirt may be a good idea.

To get you more into the campfire mood, you might be interested in our essay Morning Campfire at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/160117.htm and Campfires & the Middle Path at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100530.htm