By Charlene Claudio
At the beginning of last year, when Danielle first shared her concept of The Cautious Optimist project, I had immediately taken quite an interest (although, it took me an entire year to find time to listen to the podcast she had recommended about preparing for a climate apocalypse!) But also within the past year, I took it upon myself to try to learn new skills and expand on my current ones, whether it be enhancing my multiple DIY crafts, or learning about nature and connecting more with the land. Aside from my goal to learn how to identify trees and other wild vegetation in Ontario, I really wanted to learn essential bushcraft skills, specifically the art of conjuring fire.
Even if the odds are on my side– good tinder, plenty of dry wood, no winds– I always have some trouble starting a fire. Thus, if there was a climate apocalypse, I strongly believe learning how to start a fire by multiple means would be very beneficial.Charlene Claudio
I’m not a pyromaniac, but I do love a good fire. The flickering and dancing of flames, the crackling of wood, the glow of the embers, and the smoky smell that stays on your clothes… Something about a roaring fire brings a sense of comfort to me; from a bonfire on a chilly summer night with friends, to a cozy fireplace to stay warm on those long winter nights. But for some reason, I’m not the greatest at starting them. Even if the odds are on my side– good tinder, plenty of dry wood, no winds– I always have some trouble starting a fire. Thus, if there was a climate apocalypse, I strongly believe learning how to start a fire by multiple means would be very beneficial.
This is where I began googling and searching on Pinterest for more eco-friendly and also zero-waste ways to create my own fire starters and also looking in nature for readily available tinder.Charlene Claudio
What is a Fire?
According to Merriam-Webster, one definition of fire is: the phenomenon of combustion manifested in light, flame, and heat. Fire is essential for life, for survival: light, energy, heat, cooking, and even ceremony. But how do we create this fire?
This is an infographic from the Smokey Bear website that has a great explanation of the three elements of fire, also known as the Combustion Triangle or Fire Triangle. Simply put, the ingredients needed for a fire are heat, fuel, and oxygen.
Conjuring the Flames
Noting the three elements of fire, I mainly focused on gathering information and materials on fuel (specifically tinder/firestarter) and the initial heat source (ways to actually light the fire/fuel). From my understanding, at times the term firestarter and tinder can be interchangeable in the sense that they are umbrella terms for things that are readily combustible or can catch fire very easily. Then when they are lit, kindling is added to grow and sustain the fire. This is where I began googling and searching on Pinterest for more eco-friendly and also zero-waste ways to create my own fire starters and also looking in nature for readily available tinder.
In my firestarter kit, I included household fire starters, commercial fire starters, and different kinds of heat sources. I found a lot of information on Pinterest about using dryer lint and dryer sheets which are dry and fibrous, so they catch fire easily. I thought this was also a good way to use something that would otherwise be garbage. Paper, either scrap pieces or even take-out food bags are also good fire starters that can be easily found around the house. I wanted to have a variety in case one method didn’t work so well for me. I also found DIYs on Pinterest using beeswax or candle wax and egg cartons to make individual firestarters. You could literally mix anything with the beeswax to make firestarters – dryer lint, sawdust, and pinecones – it solidifies in the egg carton mould (then you could cut it into individual pieces, making it more portable and easier for storage).
I learned that there are other readily available forms of tinder in nature, but the key thing to note was making sure they weren’t wet or moist. In the summer, I collected pinecones that had fallen in the park and left them in the sun or put them in the oven to dry them out and kill off any bugs, since I would be storing them inside my house. My coworker (who is an indigenous traditional firekeeper) had taught me about the wonders of birch bark and how common birch trees were in our area. I collected a lot of birch bark from my hikes, making sure to put down tobacco (sema) to thank the tree if I was peeling it off from the trunk. Otherwise, I usually picked up whatever had already fallen on the path. My friends knew I was collecting birch bark, so they had helped me pick some up on our trips together. I was also told by the guide on a medicine walk that the inside of cattails is fibrous and good for tinder. Daniel Hume mentions many forms of tinder in his book Fire Making: The Forgotten Art of Conjuring Flame with Spark, Tinder, and Skill. He discusses using the outer bark of red cedar, inner bark of oak, poplar, coconut husk, dry grasses, dry leaves, dry wood scrapings, dry, decaying wood, fungi (especially horse hoof fungus), lichen, and thing twigs , and much else, as tinder (the ones I have listed are ones I will mostly likely find around where I live in Southern Ontario).
As mentioned, I included different heat sources or igniters in my firestarter kit. One of the easiest ways to ignite the tinder/firestarter would be to use a lighter. My preference is BBQ lighters because personally, they’re easier for me to use as opposed to a Bic type of lighter and my fingers are a little bit further away from the open flame (should I somehow burn myself by accident). In a survival situation, a windproof and waterproof lighter would be the best options to fight off the unexpected elements. Matches are also fairly easy to use, waterproof and strike-anywhere matches would be the best in survival situations!
Other methods that are pretty cool, but a little more difficult to successfully implement especially in life-or-death situations, would be using flint and steel and even a magnifying glass! I have purchased many flint and steel strikers and it took me a while to learn the proper amount of friction and the correct angle with which to strike the flint rod. Once I had that down, I could easily generate sparks, but I noticed that I wasn’t able to light anything. The spark wasn’t big enough to catch onto the tinder– absolutely any tinder I had. I basically gave up on trying to use it, although it looked pretty cool whenever I did generate sparks!
During an outdoor and nature school training I attended in the summer, myself and a handful of other educators explored different ways to light a fire. We were given multiple tools and told to explore the area to try to gather tinder to use. My colleagues and I used some dry branches and grasses laying around as well as cotton balls dipped in vaseline for tinder and firestarter. We attempted to light the fire with flint and steel, but were only successful with simply using a magnifying glass and the sun! Although a very minimalistic way to start a fire, it requires a steady hand, the right amount of sun, the correct angle, and correct distance in order to create a flashpoint. Again, this method isn’t very efficient in a life-or-death situation, but still a viable option!
It’s not only a survival skill, but a teachable and memorable moment for everyone. It is important to know proper fire safety and make sure to abide by laws when making contained fires. Like a lot of things, fire exists in a balance– it can reap benefits or lead to destruction. So even though we possess the means and skills to harness it, we must learn to do so responsibly.Charlene Claudio
Keeping the Fire Burning
Aside from tinder, the other fuel needed to keep a fire going include kindling and firewood. According to a camping article written by REI Co-op, kindling consists of small sticks, which burn longer than tinder and help ignite the firewood. Firewood are larger pieces of wood, such as logs, that burn longer and slower, sustaining the fire.
There are typically 2 types of ways I arrange my firewood to make sure they catch fire easily, but also allows for enough oxygen ventilation (which is the third element of fire). Most commonly, I arrange logs into a tipi-shape (if they are easy to prop upright), otherwise, I stack them into log cabin formation. Once I light the tinder, I blow on it or fan it to keep it going and so it spreads to the neighbouring kindling (fueling it with oxygen). From here, it should just take care of itself, but I add more firestarter and kindling as needed and fan if more oxygen is required.
As an educator working with children, I would like to teach them how to make small contained fires and teach them about natural tinder they can find around our area. It’s not only a survival skill, but a teachable and memorable moment for everyone. It is important to know proper fire safety and make sure to abide by laws when making contained fires. Like a lot of things, fire exists in a balance– it can reap benefits or lead to destruction. So even though we possess the means and skills to harness it, we must learn to do so responsibly.