I have carried firestarters in my emergency kit for years and I have been a Scout leader for years. But one November scout camp, it was brought up that I never had once actually tried to start a fire. I haven’t even lit a BBQ!
After the laughter and the teasing died down, we got to discussing the question, “Well, why do you bother to carry the firestarter in your emergency kit if you have no idea how to use it?” And so we figured snowy rainy days in a November BC forest was as good a time to practice as we’re going to get.
A wet or snowy forest on a cold day is one of the hardest places to find materials to burn and the most likely situation to need an emergency fire to keep you warm. Plus, if I was lost in the forest in summer, the last thing I would want to do is start a forest fire with me lost in the middle of it! Yes, it’s a lot easier to find material to burn. If you read the news on forest fires in BC most years, it's sparklingly easy to find materials to burn. Just throw a match or cigarette butt in the air, and you’ll have an out-of-control fire within minutes. However, if your intent is to get out of the forest alive without causing millions of dollars of damage, starting a fire in a summer forest is a terrible idea.
Always keep in mind that a fire needs three things:
- ignition (fire starter)
- burning material (wood, dry leaves, dry flammable material)
- oxygen (air needs to reach to fire to keep it going)
If one of these is missing the fire will go out.
Gathering Burning Material
Before you start the fire, you need to have enough material to keep the fire burning. Gather different sizes of material to build it up as it burns.
The fire will be one or perhaps two inches wide maximum. A small fire can throw out a surprising amount of heat, plus wet forest or not, you are still surrounded by wood. A roaring fire in a forest isn’t a great idea even in winter, it's better to have a small controlled fire.
Good burning material to start a fire must be dry, and have a large surface area to be able to get a fire going.
- Anything green will not burn. Green means alive and alive means wet.
- Sticks from live trees are wet (even if you can’t tell it's wet) will struggle to light.
- Anything large will not burn (surface area too small)
- Dead brown ferns are excellent fire-starting material. They have a large surface area. If it is still partially green it is wet. The ferns on the left are dry the ferns on the right green.
- Anything wet will take a long time to ignite as it needs to dry.
- The best place to look for material to burn is under fallen trees, especially large fallen trees. The material under there is likely to be dead and dry, the rain can’t reach under the tree so material under there is dry. This is also probably the only place you will find burn worthy material in snow. If you’re in the alpine (above tree line) and then you will have a hard time finding material to burn.
- The rotten dust/splinters under the tree are great material to use to start a fire. The sticks and twigs are perfect to put on once the fire has some flames.
- Cedar trees burn particularly well so, fallen cedars are an excellent place to look under (if you’re in a cedar forest that is).
- Bark from any tree burns well.
Starting the fire
OK so you’ve gathered up your burning material; dead ferns, leaves, bark, rotten tree dust, sticks and twigs of various sizes.
Sort your material into piles of different sizes. Keep the smaller material readily available as get the fire going. You will burn through it quickly. Once the flames are burning strong slowly start to add larger sizes. Be very careful to leave space for oxygen to reach the flames, otherwise it will smother and burn out.
Gather your Firestarter and matches.
If you have something to start piling the material on to keep it off the wet ground like foil, a wrapper, etc, great, if not, its not a deal breaker, just try to find a dryish spot, rock, or a piece of wet bark makes a good surface to keep the fire off the snow until it can get going.
Place one fire starter near what will be the base of the fire. Make sure you can still reach it with a match.
- Use one fire starter at a time. You may need to try again or you may need to start another fire.
Pile some of the smallest, easiest burning material around it (ferns, etc), then some small twigs on top to shape it like a teepee or triangle.
- The reason people build triangles (can be other shapes but triangles are the easiest) is so that air can get into the fire.
- Light the fire starter, get your face down to level with the floor and blow gently onto the flames, adding more of the fast burning, smaller material as the flames to start to catch, and slowly add sticks as the flames take hold.
- Blowing air into to base of the fire adds oxygen which is essential.
- After a few minutes and once the fire is going, you’ll find you get tired of blowing, so have something handy to waft the flames instead.
- Don’t add too much at once.
- You will burn all your material too quickly
- You may smother the fire and close off oxygen supply.
- If the fire is going out, it is possible to get a fire going again by wafting or blowing on the embers. If they are still orange, they can still ignite.
You’re not going to be roasting marshmallows but a tarp, a bivy and a small fire can go a long way to avoiding hypothermia while you wait for rescue. A small fire will also act as a location finder for search and rescue.
I highly recommend you practice foraging for burning material and learning how to start a fire with what you have in your emergency kit. I know I feel a lot more confident now that I know what to do.
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