Chapter 5 – Just Call Me Fire Starter

Wet leaves are not a good way to start a fire.  Paper doesn’t work really well either – especially with wet leaves.  What is needed is some kind of really dry, tiny, easily burnable material  – like dry straw or dry leaves maybe – that will ignite with a spark and then with patience and a lot of blowing on the flame, ignite the carefully gathered tinder – most likely dry sticks and twigs gathered prior to trying to start a fire with the correct kind of kindling.  The carefully gathered tinder then ignites the slower burning fuel – actual logs (which should also be dry) – that will then burn much more slowly and actually heat and/or cook something.  Let me emphasize – igniting a fire with wet leaves is a totally futile endeavor.  Use dry material instead.

Did this stop me from trying to start a fire with slightly damp leaves, no kindling, no tinder and a bunch of wet logs from the wood pile? Of course not.  In all my naïve enthusiasm for burning piles and piles of raked wet leaves, all the knowledge and experience I gleaned from my Girl Scout and later camp counselor days flew right out the window.  No tinder.  No kindling.  A lot of fuel in the wood pile (the logs were pretty damp) and one barely functioning butane lighter.  My first attempts failed miserably.

But was I discouraged?  Did wet leaves stop me?  No…just another hurdle… just another challenge.  I found a paper bag in the shed!  The paper bag was also damp.  Regardless.  I shredded it and placed the shreds indiscriminately throughout the leaf pile.  I even managed to ignite the paper bag shreds which soon died out without doing any real damage to the wet leaves.

I dug around in my brain file and pulled out some useful information about camp fire building.  Basically to build a successful camp fire, you need three dry ingredients – kindling, tinder and fuel, and be able to build a structure with the ingredients that encourages burning. You just can’t throw a match at a bunch of wet leaves and expect the leaves to burn.  It doesn’t work.

Kindling is the easiest to burn. Straw, paper, even leaves – if they’re dry – work. They ignite fast and have short-term sustainability.  Just enough heat to get the tinder going. Tinder is more substantial (usually twigs, bark, acorns), burns longer than the kindling, and serves to ignite the final ingredient – fuel.  Fuel is the longer slower-burning log. Pine has a lot of pitch and burns hot.  Birch ignites easily and burns fast.  Oak ignites slowly and burns slowly.  A combination of these fuels make for a nice camp fire.  I have a lot of oak.

Campfires require engineering skill.  You can go for the cone-shape made out of tinder with kindling in the center of a cone bordered by a square of logs.  Cone building with twigs is a lot like building a house of cards. Not worth the effort.  Or you can build a kind of square within a square with kindling in the center, followed by the tinder square, and surrounded by carefully stacked logs – also in a square.  Or you can get totally frustrated with the whole thing and buy a “fire starter” at the store which guarantees ignition. I opted for the square structure and threw in a fire-starter for good measure. OK. I cheated. After about a half-hour I had a respectable campfire blazing away in my neighbor’s fire pit.

Once the fire got hot enough, even the wet leaves burned. Wet leaves produce a lot of smoke. There was enough smoke to send smoke-signals to a 3 county area.  Black Hawk would have been proud. In order to keep my fire going, I needed more leaves than I had raked.  Rake, rake, rake.  Throw the leaves on the fire.  Temporary asphyxiation.  Rake, rake, rake.  More leaves on the fire.  More asphyxiation.  You get the picture.  This went on for at least 90 minutes.  The back yard was leaf-free.

Resolved:  I will have dry ingredients for all future fires.

Resolved:  I will buy another butane lighter…the one I have is now useless.

So, if you happen to see a smallish active senior collecting sticks, bark and acorns while walking a tiny over-active dog in your neighborhood; she’s not crazy.  She’s probably yours truly.


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