Building Fire in a Survival Situation

fire triangle
The fire triangle makes fire possible.

The concept of fire is simple because it follows the laws of physics. There is something called the triangle of fire. Each side of the triangle in necessary to obtain fire. In order to fight a fire, we were taught that in order to kill a fire we must remove one or more of the sdes of the triangle. The sides of the fire triangle are Fuel, Heat, and Oxygen. If we can put out a fire by removing one of the points, it only stands to reason, that in order to build a fire, we must supply each of the points.

Fuel is simply anything that will readily burn. In the forest this is typically dried grass, leaves, bark, and wood.

Oxygen comes from the air around us. When nursing an ember or tiny flame to life, it is important to gently blow on it to supply additional oxygen to give the fire strength. The ambient air is typically 18% oxygen. When we exhale, our breath is approximately 16% oxygen. This is sufficient for us to breathe again; it is also definitely enough for a fire to breathe.

Heat is the most tricky part of the triangle. As such, it will be the main topic of the following text. Any bar or restaurant you might happen into will have a ready supply of matches. There are also disposable lighters of every ilk at the local market, or any gas station you stop at. I am a non smoker, but I always have a lighter on hand. While making a fire by rubbing two sticks together may make for wonderful television, the resulting fire is no more warm, or quick to boil water, or cook food, than one started using a simple lighter. Now with that being said, what do you do when the matches are wet, or your little bic stops flicking? With a little knowledge, and some planning, you can provide the requisite heat in any number of unconventional methods.

Before attempting to start a fire using any of the methods described below, the survivalist must first make certain preparations. First among these is to locate a good amount of dry tinder. Tinder is anything dry, light, and airy, that will readily accept and hold a spark. Examples of tinder include, but are not limited to, dry grass, Spanish moss, the fluff from cattail milkweed or bull rush, and birch bark, etc. This material should be fluffed between the hands and gathered into a ball resembling a birds nest. As a matter of fact, this tinder bundle is often referred to as a birds nest. Along with the tinder you will need wood for the fire. A good rule of thumb is to gather 5 times the amount of wood you think you will need. Some of this wood should be very small twigs which are used during the initial stages of building your fire. A good source of dried twigs, even during or shortly after rain, is the dead lower branches of evergreen trees. These branches are always dry, and they contain a resin which allows them to easily catch fire. Your wood should already be cut or broken into useable lengths. You may not be equipped to break down larger logs, but can still make use of them. Once you have an established fire, one with a good bed of coals, you can place these larger logs over the fire, and actually burn them in half. You can then continue to feed the burned ends into the fire. Let us now take a look at some of my favorite methods of starting a fire.

A mechanical method is nothing more than using a man made device to aid in obtaining fire. This can be something as mundane as matches or a lighter, or it can mean a ferrocerium rod, magnesium stick, or a fire piston. These will all serve you well. I always carry a ferrocerium rod and striker, as this setup will allow me to reliably make fire in a few minutes. If I had a can of accelerant, you can bet your last dollar I would not hesitate to use it. When faced with a survival situation, getting things done in the easiest manner is paramount to ensuring survival.

bowdrill image
Making fire with a Bowdrill

A fire by friction is the old "rubbing two sticks together". While this is the oldest method of fire making, I can attest that it is by no means the easiest. The two main ways to obtain a friction fire are the hand drill, and the bow drill. The hand drill method consists of a long spindle and a hearth board. The hearth board is typically a branch or section of a log that has been cut to form a thin slab. Into this slab one must cut a shallow hole near the edge of the board. A notch is then cut from that hole to the edge of the board. The spindle is a long slender shaft that fits into the partial hole cut in the hearth board. The user places the spindle into the hole in the hearth, and places the spindle between the palms of his or her hands. Witht he hands at the top of the spindle, the user places downward pressure with his or her shoulders, and quickly rubs their palms back and forth across one another causing the spindle to rotate quickly. The user continues this process until their hands near the bottom of the spindle, whereby they quickly reposition their hands back near the top, and repeat the rotation. This is continues until a pile of smoldering dust collects in the notch of the hearth board; this dust is called the ember. This ember is then transferred to the waiting tinder bundle, also called a birds nest, and gently blown into flame. Sounds easy, right? It can be. I have used a spindle and hearth to make a fire in as little as 2 - 3 minutes, and I have worked on it for hours without success. Your ultimate success will depend upon the humidity in the air; the moisture content of your materials, as well as the type of wood chosen for the spindle and the hearth. Always look for soft woods when choosing materials for your fire set. As hardwood spindle is spun into hardwood hearth, both pieces will simply burnish one another, and no dust will accumulate. A variation of the handdrill and hearth method is the bowdrill and hearth method. A handdrill can really mess up your hands. I have received some very bad blisters attempting this method. To remedy this, the spindle can be rotated using the bowdrill method. The bow drill method consists of the same spindle and hearth, but also adds a handblock or handrock and a bow. A piece of rope or other cordage is tied to bent stick about 2-2.5 feet long. The cordage is not pulled tight, but rather left loose enough that a loop can be formed to snugly fit around the shaft of the spindle. One end of the spindle is placed into the hole in the hearth, and the other into the handblock held in the opposite hand. You begin by applying pressure to the handblock, while you move the bowdrill back and forth in a saw like motion. This rotates the shaft back and forth very quickly, hopefully causing dust to build up much more quickly. I say hopefully because it does not always work as it should. This method takes a bit of practice; apply too much pressure on the handblock, and you can break the shaft, too little pressure and you do not get enough friction to cause dust and heat. You should also plan on breaking the bow string a number of times as well. Once you get the hang of it, fire by friction is a very reliable method of attaining fire.

A reactive fire is one built by harnessing a chemical or physical response of chemicals or materials not typically associated with fire. One type of reactive fire can be made using a battery. All one needs to do is cross the poles of the battery with wire or steel wool to create a spark, thereby igniting a tinder bundle. I especially like steel wool because it actually burns a little. This makes it easy to use for tinder. Depending upon the gauge, using wire can be a bit more hit and miss. The gauge must be small enough to heat up, but not so thin that it melts. Another reactive fire can be started using the chemical reaction of two agents. My favorites are potassium permanganate and glycerin. Both are readily available, and very stable when kept separate. However, mix them, wait a few seconds and the resulting reaction creates an intense hot fire.

This is a quick overview of the fire making process. The most important thing I can tell you is to get out and practice. Doing so while you are not in urgent need of fire to live, will make it easier if you ever need fire to survive. Fire making is a huge part of my Wilderness Skills classes.