Are you wondering if the first two letters are omitted? Yes, they are. You get astute award. So what is it that happens we should be concerned about this time? Campfires. Campfires are an American camping tradition and I love them. They make light and heat, are fun to cook over and create an evening atmosphere of cozy camping unparalleled by anything else.
That is until ‘Mister Fire’ takes over. This is the person who claims to know everything there is to know about campfires. What he actually knows is rather suspect.
The first hint as to his skills is when he loads the fire ring with large logs and asks for the lighter fluid. A suggestion; do not give it to him. A cold beer will usually distract him just as a shiny lure does with a trout. Lighter fluid is a
very good accelerant, especially for lighting shirt sleeves, a hat brim, marshmallow bag and nylon chairs. It is a lousy choice for lighting a campfire.
A few other really poor choices are phone books, newspapers, oily rags, plastic bottles, bags of trash, empty lighter fluid containers, anything soaked with gasoline or kerosene, food wrappers and Uncle Drunky’s plastic flask. They all are potential wildfire starters by sending small burning scraps flying into standing flora, exploding pieces of burning shrapnel into the air and easily getting out of control. Case in point; I was once privy to a bottle cork projectile that came very close to turning a baritone into a tenor. He would not have been a happy camper. The knot and bruise on his inner thigh was enough to make him a believer. Ironically, it was his own cork.
There is almost never a reason to use manufactured (notice I did not write “man-made;” dodged that PC bullet) products to start a campfire. Mother Nature has provided us with everything we need to be safe and efficient.
In the beginning there is the fire ring. In established campgrounds these are usually provided. In the outback use large angular stones to form a fire ring no more than three feet in diameter. Stones with rounded surfaces were probably weathered in water. They will explode when heated. Rake or scrape out a clean circle around the fire ring that extends at least three feet from the ring, all the way around. Do this even with a provided fire ring. The danger is this. Organic material in the ground, even slightly below the surface, can burn without a flame creating a chain reaction that can send the burning ‘fuse’ of material straight to the closest tree or bush and ignite it up to a day or two later.
Now that you have a proper fire ring and clean area around it look for tinder. Tinder is very fine organic material such as dry grass, forest litter or any dry material no thicker than a hair.
A loosely packed ‘bird’s nest’ of such material is all that is needed. Place it alone in the center of the fire ring. Have an assortment of twigs, sticks and logs at the ready close by. A single wooden kitchen match slid gently into the nest will ignite it. If you did this without your face being directly over the nest you will still have your vision and not be running and screaming. Place some twigs on the fire and then graduate to larger pieces until the logs are in place and burning. NEVER allow the fire to extend beyond the rim of the fire ring. Use material that fits inside. For example, a wooden door is totally out of bounds.
Throwing wood forcefully on the fire is counterproductive. It will smother the fire and scatter burning ash. A good campfire needs to be tended with care, romanced into full flame, appreciated for its light and warmth as one would appreciate a true love snuggled close and purring. Feel it, listen to it and watch the fluid motion of the flames as they blend red into yellow and stream upward into the atmosphere. It is the harvest of nature giving you the most basic need of ancient humans. It does not need to rage in giant form, but exist in humble reverence to the Earth, no more than three feet high.
Remember the factor of threes. A three foot fire ring with three feet cleared around it and a three foot high flame.
There are many types of fires from the ever popular tepee to the log cabin and trench fire; some are fires for light, some for cooking, some for heat and others of combined purposes. That is beyond the scope of this article, but avid outdoors people learn to use campfires to suit a specific purpose.
Tending the fire comes with experience, but a few basics are warranted. Adequate air space under and through the fire is paramount. It is only with flowing air that logs can burn at all. A few rocks used as a base to raise the logs an inch off the ground will do wonders to improve the integrity of the fire. A solid pile of lumber is only slightly easier to burn than metal.
If an accelerant is needed due to high moisture content of the wood, Mother once again has provided. The sap of yellow pines, pine needles and pine cones are like gasoline in a flame. Look for sap nodules on the bark of a standing tree and remove a few with a pocket knife.
Start your fire with softwood (pine and fir) and use hardwood (broadleaf trees) for the hottest, longest burning campfire. Juniper, cedar and manzanita are some of the most available and best burning woods in the west. Hickory, maple and oak are eastern favorites.
When it is time to leave a campfire put it out, all the way out. Remember about the burning ‘fuse’ underground? If a fire is left un-extinguished it can spark nearby vegetation a day or two later. A large bucket of water and shovelfuls of dirt to smother stirred ashes only takes a few minutes and could save more lives than you even want to think about. And remember what Smokey says, “Only you …”