Skids Up No. 5: Fire

Finally, you all say!

In this blog, we will now start to explore the wonderful world of survival techniques and how to apply them. You do not need fancy or expensive equipment for this; just a brain and the will to survive. Everything is linked, though! If you ´Dress to Egress´ and follow the ´5 Ps´ (Prior Preparation Prevent P*** Poor Performance), then you will find yourself better positioned to survive. It does not mean that you will, but if you have equipment, it will make the whole task easier. For example, you can make a natural fiber rope from plants; capable of holding your own weight. However, this takes both TIME and ENERGY. Hopefully, you can recover your survival gear containing a length of paracord, and the same task now takes 5 minutes instead of 5 days. Always remember: the most energy that you will have in a post-crash is right here and right now.

In this first part (of 2), we will concentrate on PROTECTION; specifically, the ability to make… 

FIRE

In many survival situations, the ability to start a fire can make the difference between living and dying. The importance of being able to make fire cannot be stressed enough. It pertains to all of the 4 priorities of survival. It is also what enabled the Homo sapiens to become the top predator on the planet.

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  1. PROTECTION – It keeps you warm and prevents calories from being used to generate heat. It also keeps insects and wild animals away and provides mental comfort (the psychological boost by providing peace of mind and companionship).
  2. LOCATION – It allows signaling to other aircraft and rescue teams.
  3. WATER – Boil and purify it. You can create a de-salinator to make sea water drinkable.
  4. FOOD – Cook raw meats and make certain plant species edible.

Basic Fire Principles 

To build a fire, it helps to understand the basic principles. Fuel, in a nongaseous state, does not burn directly. When you apply heat to a fuel, it produces a gas. This gas, combined with oxygen in the air, burns. Understanding the concept of the fire triangle is very important in correctly constructing and maintaining a fire. 

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The three sides of the triangle represent air, heat, and fuel. If you remove any of these, the fire will go out. The correct ratio of these components is very important for a fire to burn at its greatest capability. The only way to learn this ratio is to practice. 

Fire Site Selection

The location of your fire is one of the most important steps undertaken when constructing a fire. You will make your job infinitely more difficult if a proper location is not found. Find a place that is out of the wind and elements, that will have ample fuel, and that doesn’t cause a hazard. It’s hard enough surviving in a forest. It’s even harder trying to survive a forest fire! The more you do before ever striking a match, the easier it will be to start and maintain a fire. Also, make your fire as small as possible. You’ll use less wood and less energy. If you’re using the fire as a signal, you can still keep it small, but have a prefabricated signal fire ´pyramid ´structure ready for immediate notice and use. 

Fire Material Selection

To build a typical fire, you will need three different types of materials: tinder, kindling and fuel. Before attempting to start a fire, remember:

´PREPARATION, PREPARATION, PREPARATION´

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Tinder is dry material that ignites with little heat. A spark starts a fire. The tinder must be absolutely dry to be sure that just a spark will ignite it. If you only have a device that generates sparks, charred cloth will be almost essential. It holds a spark for long periods; allowing you to put tinder on the hot area to generate a small flame. You can make charred cloth by heating cotton cloth until it turns black, but does not burn. Once it is black, you must keep it in an airtight container to keep it dry. Prepare this cloth well in advance of any survival situation and add it to your individual survival kit. 

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Tinder Examples: 

  • Cedar or birch bark 
  • Dry wood shavings 
  • Dead grass, straw, dead moss, dead ferns 
  • Cotton wool (can be enhanced with Vaseline)
  • Dead pine needles or similar 
  • Sawdust 

Kindling is readily combustible material that you add to the burning tinder. Again, this material should be absolutely dry to ensure rapid burning. Kindling increases the fire’s temperature so that it will ignite less combustible material.

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Kindling Examples: 

  • Small twigs or small strips of wood 
  • Cardboard 
  • Tree bark

Fuel is larger pieces of wood that make it bigger, so that it burns for longer. The materials you choose for fuel should be less combustible. They should burn slowly, but steadily. 

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Fuel Examples:

  • Dry, standing wood and larger branches 
  • Insides of dead tree trunks as long as they’re dry 
  • Bunches of dried grass 
  • Dry peat often found near river banks
  • Dried animal dung 
  • Pine tree knots containing resin Fuel
  • Coal 

Collect all of the materials you require prior to starting. It is considered best practice that wherever you lay a foundation ´platform´ of wood, you should build the rest of the fire on it. This protects the flame from cold or wet ground, and it provides additional fuel to your fire.

How to Start the Fire 

There are many different ways of lighting a fire. Some of these methods date back thousands of years. Unfortunately, they can often take months, if not years, of painstaking practice to learn. Even modern day fire-steels need practice on how to use effectively. As with everything in survival, there is a ´right way and a wrong way´.

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You may have several ways to ignite a fire in the survival kit, but a review of basic fire building and starting principles is important. This includes some of the more primitive ways to start a fire. Before considering the ‘ignition’ element of the fire-making process, you should have prepared yourself. Therefore, you should have ensured that you have at least one, but preferably two, sources of fire igniting equipment contained within your emergency survival kit. Always ensure that you have collected your tinder, kindling and a good sized portion of your fuel before starting the fire off. The tinder is the first material you’ll light, and it’s the most delicate. Keep in mind, it’s better to light it upwind. To make things as easy as possible, you should use a lighter or matches.

Lighter and Matches

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It took hundreds of years to invent the butane gas lighter – So carry one! Even when empty or wet, the flint mechanism can still be used. Dampness can affect lighters, though. Matches should be waterproof and kept in a waterproof container, too. If matches are the only fire starting tools you have, you should treat like them like ‘gold dust’. You cannot be sure how long it will be before rescue reaches you, so work off the principle of ‘one fire, one match’. Alternatively, if you have a candle or small strips of rubber inner tube in your survival kit, you can cut down on the number of matches you use. 

Using a Lens

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Harnessing the powers of the sun, this method can only be used during daylight hours when it’s sunny and bright. Your lens might come from various items of equipment that you brought with you; camera, glasses, binoculars, magnifying glass or broken glass. In fact, you can use ice or water in a clear plastic bag with the correct knowledge and technique.  Whatever type of lens you use, you should angle the lens so that it concentrates the rays of the sun directly onto the tinder. Hold it over the same spot until you can see that the tinder is smoldering. Then, gently blow or fan the tinder until it bursts into flame. After that, you can add your kindling. 

Using a Battery 

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Most types of batteries can be used to light a fire. Simply attach a piece of wire or wire wool to each end of the battery and touch the other ends of the wire together next to the tinder. This will create a spark which can be used to ignite your fire. No square batteries in your kit? There is usually a big one in the helicopter.

Fire-steel

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The direct spark method is the easiest of the more ´primitive´ methods to use and more importantly it will still work if the equipment itself is completely wet. There are many different types, from the type pictured above with a striker and steel, the US Military type with a block of magnesium to provide tinder and one handed compact models. The fire steel method is the most reliable of the direct spark methods, although this method requires some practice. When a spark has caught in the tinder, blow on it. The spark will spread and burst into flames.

Chemical Methods

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Potassium permanganate is occasionally found in some aircraft survival kits. Our helicopter kits carry it. It can be used to disinfect water (not purify), provide an effective dye marker in snow, as an antiseptic solution, or to start fire. It does need to be mixed with another chemical component for this to work. The easiest source is actually ordinary sugar. You simply mix the two together, apply direct pressure / friction, and it will ignite. The other common chemical component is glycerin (e.g. anti-freeze). This works if you are in a motor vehicle or an aircraft that contains glycerin, but it is not really practical. For these chemicals to work, you need the ambient temperature to be approximately 20 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Farenheight). It is an option to consider, but it may not be not the ultimate fire-starter as it is sometimes made out to be.

Fire by Friction

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This is the one everybody wants to do, and everybody believes is the easiest!  

There are many different methods of fire by friction, and they all require knowledge and constant practice on how to construct the necessary pieces of wood in order to be successful. Some examples are:

  • The fire-plow
  • The fire-bow
  • The bamboo saw

Basically, you rub a hardwood shaft against a softer wood base. The rubbing action of the various types creates small particles of wood fibers that progressively heat from friction until they reach their combustion point. This hot ember is then transferred into a kindling bundle. All these methods require a lot of energy; a luxury you may not have!

Types of Fire

As described previously, the aim is to keep the fire small, but effective for its purpose. This is survival – Not camping or having a BBQ. There are different ways to lay a fire depending on what you want to achieve. These are the 4 most common examples:

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A ´Pyramid´ fire

The simplest and easiest fire to construct and ideal for cooking with hanging pots or used as a base to develop further different fire types.

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A ´Star´ fire

Feeding larger logs into a pyramid fire that is slow burning. Also allows you to utilize larger logs that you are unable to cut. 

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A ´Parallel´ fire

Uses large logs in conjunction with a shelter and fire reflector. Provides a slow burning, high heat to keep you warm from head to toe.

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The ´log cabin´

A slow burning fire that is ideal for using with cooking pots. It also allows wet timber to be dried progressively.

As with all survival techniques, they take PRACTICE. Not only on a sunny day, but when it rains or snows. Go out and practice! Most modern military fire starters are designed to be used one-handed in case of injury. Can you light a fire in the rain with one hand? Give it a go!

In Part 2 of this blog, we will look further into protection and the use / construction of shelters. 

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