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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fire, The Flame of Life, by T.S.K.

One of the basic requirements for survival in any situation for any sustained amount of time is fire.  Fire and the ability to make and maintain it can be the difference between life and death.  Having the proper materials and possessing the skills required to use them is something that needs to be practiced and learned before you are depending on them for your life.
Why Fire is Important
Depending on the situation fire serves many purposes.  
In a short term survival situation (several hours to several days), fire provides both a physical and mental benefit.  Physically fire provides heat.  With heat you can keep warm, dry wet clothes and gear, boil water for purification, and use it to cook.  Mentally, a fire provides light, a sense of security and one of accomplishment.  Having a fire can mentally put you in the right mindset to plan and survive.  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.  Basic items to start a fire are very light and small and should be included in any survival or bugout bag.
In a longer term situation (several days to months), fire provides all the benefits discussed above, but the focus will shift from immediate survival (water, warmth, rescue) to a more long term approach.  Fire will provide the basis to purify water and the means to cook and preserve food and create tools.  Fuel for the fire will become increasingly more important depending on your surroundings and the amount of fuel you are using daily.  Remember, the more fuel you burn the more fuel you have to gather, the more water and food you will need to survive.
In a long term or TEOTWAWKI situation fire will become a core part of survival like it was for the caveman.  There are many great commercial products out there for cooking, purifying water, etc. but as time goes on, most will run out of fuel or purification cartridges or break beyond repair, eventually leaving only good old fire.  As this happens fire will be used as the primary source to purify water, cook, bake and preserve food.  It will also be used for many other purposes some of which are:
  1. Fire kilns for brick and pottery, etc.
  2. Forges for melting, bending and shaping metal
  3. Lye from the ash will be used to make soap
  4. Burn to clear brush from gardens and promote natural seeds and grasses
  5. Light
Spark\Heat (Traditional and Commercial)
Now we have talked about why fire is important to survival, let’s talk about the different requirements to start and maintain a fire.  To start a fire you need three things: spark\heat, air and fuel.
There are multiple ways to get a spark or heat that will combine with air to ignite the tinder and start your fire.  I am going to talk about both the traditional methods and also the commercially available methods I have used and the pros and cons to each.  With all of these, the key is practice.  It is never good to be trying to start a fire with a method that is not tried and true when your life depends on it.
For sustained ability to make fire you need to learn to master the Bow and Drill or Fire Plow method as they depend only on resources you can get from nature.  My favorite way to get a spark is by using a commercial striker, but I have also mastered the Bow and Drill method as a backup.
Traditional Spark\Heat
  • Bow and Drill
    • Pro: Made with materials from nature.  Anything  broke or damaged can easily be replaced or repaired.
    • Con: Not a easy way to start a fire for a novice, practice is required in mastering and becoming proficient with this method
  • Fire Plow
    • Pro: Made with materials from nature.  Anything  broke or damaged can easily be replaced or repaired.
    • Con: Typically more human energy is required than the bow and drill method as you have to build friction for heat.  Like the bow and drill this is not an easy way to start a fire for a novice, practice is required in mastering and becoming proficient with this method
  • Flint and Steel or striker
    • Pro: Depending on the type, easy to spark and get a fire for most users, though practice is recommended.
    • Con:  Great fire started, but they will eventually wear out.
  • Matches
    • Pro: Easy for most anyone to light.
    • Con: Can get wet or damaged and when you are out of matches you are out of fire.
  • Lens
    • Pro: Fast fire with correct sun and lens.
    • Con: Requires direct sunlight and practice.  Lens can break.
  • Battery and Steel Wool
    • Pro: None, I don’t recommend this method, but will work in a pinch if you have all the needed materials.
    • Con: Won’t work with a dead or damaged battery and must have steel wool.
  • Gunpowder
    • Pro: None, but will work if it is all you have.
    • Con: Fast hot flame, must be quick with the tinder to capture flame.
  • Lighter
    • Pro: Like the match, most people know how to use one.
    • Con: Can malfunction or get damaged, once out of fuel no more flame, just a very small spark.
Commercial Spark\Heat (links provided in the References)
I have listed the commercially available strikers I have personally used ranked by my favorite to my least favorite.
    1. Blastmatch by Ultimate Survival Technologies
      • Pro: Can use one handed and throws a big shower of sparks, not effected by water
      • Con: eventually wear out (roughly 10,000 strikes)
    2. Swedish Fire Steel by Light My Fire
      • Pro: Simple and efficient
      • Con: eventually wear out (roughly 3000 strikes)
    3. Sparkie by Ultimate Survival Technologies
      • Pro: Light weight and small and can be used one handed
      • Con: eventually wear out (could not find a strike #)
    4. Spark-Lite by Spark-lite
      • Pro: Ultra lightweight (I carry this as my backup to my Blastmatch)
      • Con: eventually wear out (roughly 2,000)
    5. Magnesium bar and Striker (several different makes and models)
      • Pro: If you can get the magnesium to light very hot flame
      • Con: depending on the quality hard to get magnesium to light
    6. Other Strikers (various other no-name or cheaper flint and steal, from what I have found you get what you pay for.  They may work, but not as good and as easy as the ones listed above)
Materials\Tinder
One you have heat or a spark you will need to transfer that to tinder to start a fire.  Again like the spark there are traditional\natural and non-traditional tinder.  Natural tinder various by region and you will have to experiment with the best type in your area.  Generally any dry fibrous material like inner bark from a tree, dead grass, dead evergreen needles, etc. make a great tinder.  If available, birch bark makes great tinder.  My favorite natural tinder is fatwood shavings.  Fatwood (pine with high amounts of resin\sap) is naturally occurring and can be easily found and processed in a pine forest.
Some examples of non-traditional\natural tinder are dryer lint, char cloth, wax paper, cotton ball and petroleum jelly, etc.  My favorite by far is the cotton ball mixed\covered in petroleum jelly.  It provides a nice hot flame, it easy and cheap to make and will burn when wet.  I have tried multiple types of commercial tinder, but always come back to the cotton ball and petroleum jelly.
Depending on the situation always evaluate and use the resources you have available.  Other ideas or things that make great fire starters\tinder are mosquito repellent, hairspray, anything with a high alcohol content.  The best survivalist is always someone who maximizes what they have available and ready at hand.
Types of Fires
Now that you have fire, let’s talk about a few of the different types of fires and the best use for each of these fires types:
  1. Traditional Fire:  This is your classic fire with stick\fuel crossed in the center.  This type of fire provides warmth, light, and also is great for cooking.  The downside to this type of fire is it isn’t very efficient and consumes more wood than other fire configurations.
  2. Upside Down Fire:  This type of fire is made by stacking the fuel very tightly together in a box or cube shape and then lighting the fire from the top.  This style of fire burns longer and requires less fuel overtime as it feeds itself as it burns down.  This type of fire also creates great coals for cooking once burned down.  The downside to this fire is that you need to have lots of fuel in the beginning to create your upside down fire.
  3. Dakota Fire Hole:  This type of fire is a great fire for cooking and is basically like the name describes a hole.  To build this type of fire you dig a whole 10 to 12 inches deep for the main fire and a vent hole 4 to 6 inches around that joins into the main hole from the side.  This fire has great benefits as it uses less fuel and typically burns hotter than traditional fires.
  4. Base Fire:  A base fire or base can be used with any fire style except the Dakota Fire Hole.  The idea or purpose of a base fire is to elevate the fire (keep it out of snow, water, etc).  You do this by building the fire on a base, typically wet or green fuel that won’t burn easily.
  5. Reflector Fire:  A reflective fire isn’t as much about the way the fuel is arranged, but more about the fire pit and the way the heat and light reflects.  The goal of a reflective fire it to maximize the amount of heat or light by reflecting off of a wall (made of dirt, stone, wood, etc.) towards the desired location.  This is a great fire for survival shelters to reflect the heat towards the shelter.
  6. Parallel Fire:  This type of fire is created between 2 large logs setup parallel to each other.  The fire is placed in the middle.  This type of fire is typically used for a cooking fire as you can use the log surfaces as a base for cooking.  It also provides a wind break on each side for the fire.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The key to anything survival related is practice, practice, practice.  No matter what your preferred method for fire starting is, you need to practice until you are proficient.  I also recommend that you practice and are proficient in multiple methods in case your primary method is not available or no longer works.  Without proficiency you will be unable to start a fire when you need it the most.
References:
Ultimate Survival Technologies
Light My Fire