Everyone should know how to build an emergency fire

It’s one of the most important of basic survival needs. It doesn’t matter where you live or where you may be. Some people think they may never need the skill, but I guarantee at some point in your life you will think one of two thoughts: “Thank goodness I learned how to build a fire.” or “Oh, no. What now?” 

Building a fire isn’t natural at all. Even watching some of these ridiculous survival shows you see that many people cannot start fires at times. I hope to guide you in the right steps to take so that you can increase your odds of surviving in a desperate situation. This is one of the skills that need practice, so don’t read this article or watch a video and think “OK, I can do that without ‘doing that.’ ”

Currently, thousands of homes in the United States are flooded and destroyed. People are displaced, and clean water is nowhere to be found. Imagine sitting on your roof, tired and exhausted, surrounded by water that will kill you if you drink it. You would have to find safe drinking water for you and your family. The fastest way to make it safe is to boil the water.

The smartest thing you can do is prep a bit before you ever need to start a fire. Lighters, lighters, lighters! I am a firm believer in having two lighters in your pocket, cars, purses, boat, camper, and a dozen or so in the house at all times. Even lighters are not foolproof, but the only way you can get a better edge on what may happen is to carry a flamethrower. For less than $10 you can buy all the lighters you will need, it’s probably one of the best ways to spend a few dollars.

How to start your fire

Kindling is key! All fires need kindling to start. I like to use a cotton ball saturated with petroleum jelly for my initial start, with these ingredients your fire will burn for a long time. Put the saturated cotton balls in a little Ziploc bag and roll it tightly. Make sure to put these items in storage with your other fire starting gear.

I also like to use manufactured synthetic logs that you can buy at the store and cut into 1”x1”x6” pieces for kindling. These pieces will also burn for a long time and make it easy to start your fire or even to cook with or boil water.

Other fire-starting techniques are great skills to have but should not be your go-to methods for starting a fire. I have used every method I came across to start a fire. Take the time to learn how to make flint, electrical, chemical, sun or friction fires but don’t depend on them as your first methods to start a fire. I would only use other methods if I have lost my lighter. Time is key in an emergency; why take an hour to get a fire started when it can be done in 2-3 minutes with proper kindling and a lighter?

Now that we have the fire source and kindling down we need fuel to burn. Some fuels are better than others, and depending on your situation you really need to use your head. Some of the best fuels come from tree wood. Branches can be collected off the floor if you have access to them. Even if you live in the city you can find wood to burn in parks, playgrounds, and front yards. If you are lucky, they may even be dry.

In some situations, you may not have access to that sort of wood. I made it through a terrible snow storm once by burning furniture. You won’t go long on burning pine furniture, but in my case, we made it through a night until I was able to get more wood. Like I said, you never know where the emergency will be and this one happened to be right in my home.

In the woods, more often than not, the wood will be moist or wet. Dry wood is a luxury that is not usually available in emergency situations. Some ways to find dry wood is under dead trees, under ledges of banks, rock cropping’s or even manmade structures. When you have collected the wood you think you need, go back and triple it. You can never have enough wood!

Some types of wood will burn wet or moist. Pine branches go up like they have gasoline in them. The trick with wet pine branches is to break them up and concentrate the branches to as thick a pile as possible. Fill the pile with plenty of thin kindling and wood before you start the fire.

Once you set it up the fire burns fast and will only last seconds, so don’t skimp on the kindling. After you see the kindling has caught fire use really thin branches and build your fire, slowly. Keep it hot because, as you add wood, it will have to first dry out then catch fire.

If you need to burn other wet woods make sure to strip off the bark. The bark holds much more water when it’s wet or humid out. After you strip off the bark, strip off slivers of wood to burn. They must be thin in order to dry out and burn. Larger, thicker pieces of wood will just steam and stay wet, letting the fire burn out.

Again, depending on your location, you have some choices of how to contain the fire. In an emergency the last thing you need is a fire getting loose on you. Always try and contain the fire with a pit of stones. Fires, especially wet ones tend to spark and pop, sending embers shooting. If you are in your house make sure not to start any fires unless you have a chimney. Carbon monoxide is a dangerous gas that comes with fire and will kill you!

If I were in one of the many flood situation that the US is currently experiencing and stuck on a roof or attic, I would bust a hole in the roof for the smoke to exhaust out of. Then I would use a roasting pan that has a lid for a fire pit. After that, place another baking pan upside down under the roasting pan creating air space so that your floor won’t catch fire. The roasting pan lid can be closed so that the fire will go out when needed, saving on fuel (wood) and turning it into charcoal which will start faster the next time. 

Fuel in this situation could be found in pieces of flooring, untreated furniture, banisters, and even picture frames. If you can’t leave your house to find wood, make do with what you have but don’t remove any structural wood.

Here are a few more methods to starting fires:

  • Battery and conductor (steel wool, wire) – Regular batteries and even automobile batteries can be used to start a fire. Either the spark of making the battery contacts can be used or the heat from maintaining battery contact against the negative and positive could be used.
  • Chemical (glycerin and antifreeze) – Chemicals can be used to start fires. Some are really dangerous, but Glycerin and anti-freeze are the easiest and safest to come by. Just mixing equal parts will start a hot fire to get kindling burning.
  • Flint and steel – This old classic is tough for anyone that doesn’t practice with it. Flint and steel are best utilized with char cloth.
  • Friction fire – Friction fire is really glamorous, and what most people imagine when thinking about survival fire starting. So many styles of friction fires exist, and even in idol conditions, success is spotty.
  • Solar rays – With a clear bag and water, sun light rays can be focused on one spot to ignite dry tinder. Magnifying glasses and even the bottom of a shiny can can focus the rays of sun, if you are lucky.
  • Matches – Matches are good but still tough to use in moist conditions. You may get waterproof matches or even dip your regular matches in wax to try and keep them dry.

With all the ways that you can start a fire, give yourself the best chance by pre-planning with a lighter and tinder. Putting little Ziploc bags with fire needs in a jacket pocket, cars, purses and book bags is just plain common sense!

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