Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Quest for Fire

   Learning how to produce fire is arguably the greatest advantage for not only surviving, but thriving. With the aid of fire you can sanitize food and water, cauterize wounds to stop bleeding and deter infection, stay warm, ward off predators, signal over long distances, hunt, make weapons, see in the dark, repel insects, clear brush to plant crops, cure animal hides and pottery and assist in the making of more products than I care to continue listing. It’s no wonder that fire is a common element in religious ceremonies in cultures all over the world. We hear things like “The fire in their eyes” and “The fire in your soul”. Fire symbolizes destructive and life-giving power alike. The very heart of our planet is one ginormous roiling ball of fire. Nature simple has to spew a few hot rocks out of the earth, or discharge lightening from the sky and fire is born, but we have to get a little more technically involved in the science of it all. I hate to throw a curve ball at you like science, but no worries -science is merely the understanding of nature and not the undermining rationale some mistake it to be. With a little understanding of the science of nature you can learn to produce fire with the most unlikely of resources.

*A “tinder nest” refers to just that, a small nest of dry fibrous material in which to start or place an ember.
*The acronym “CPR” is used to describe to the technique of nursing an ember with extended and controlled jets of breath until the tinder nest bursts to life and can breathe on its own. Try not to hyperventilate, it can happen.

Fire Starting Tools-
-Matches may be obvious, but you can waterproof wooden ones yourself by soaking them in turpentine for 5 minutes and allow them to thoroughly dry for 20. Don’t use a plastic container to soak the matches in or the turpentine might melt the plastic. You can also dip wooden matches in clear nail polish or wax and prop them up to dry. Store your new waterproof matches in a 35mm film canister, pill bottle, or any small waterproof container. Put a couple strips of striker patch in with them and you’ll be set.
-Flint and steel strikers are great reusable tools and come in many shapes and sizes. Strike on your tinder nest and apply CPR at the first sign of an ember.
-A magnesium bar is a silvery, rectangular bar with a striker rod embedded in one side. Scrap the silvery bar with your knife blade to form a small pile of magnesium dust in the midst of stubborn tinder. As you strike the striker rod with your knife blade aim the sparks onto the mag dust and watch it flare up like a micro sun. Magnesium can burn at temperatures of over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit so be extremely careful when applying CPR. Let the “sun” go down a bit before you put your face near it.

Using Pressure-
-A Fire Piston is a cylinder that is sealed on one end, a plunger that fits inside the cylinder and a gasket for the plunger so it fits tightly into the cylinder; and lubricated to reduce friction -like a bicycle pump without an exhaust hose. The end of the plunger that enters the cylinder is hollowed out to hold a small bit of tinder. When forcefully compressed, the air inside the cylinder can reach temperatures in excess of 800 degrees Fahrenheit, sufficient to ignite the tinder bit inside. Quickly pop the plunger in with as much force as you can and pull it out and check for an ember. Drop the ember in your tinder nest and apply CPR.
   With some ingenuity these devices can be fabricated; the natives of Indonesia were making fire pistons with bamboo, plant fiber gaskets and animal fat lubrication over a thousand years ago. Exactly how they came up with this ingenious method of producing fire is unknown, but it’s thought that perhaps they stumbled across this through the process they use to make bamboo blowguns.

Friction Methods-
-A Fire Drill consists of a spindle (tapered on one end) and a flat piece of wood called a fireboard that has a bowl indention in it near an edge -to seat the tapered end of the spindle. A V-notch is carved next to indentation in the side of the fireboard, giving the forthcoming dust and eventual ember a pathway to drop down into a waiting tinder nest. You can vigorously spin the spindle with the palms of your hands, keeping downward pressure by pushing down while you spin and quickly switching back up every time your hands reach the bottom, or you can cut a notch in the top of the spindle and hang a piece of cordage over it, with loops on each end to hook your thumbs in.
-A Fire Bow requires the same spindle and fireboard setup as well. A bow is made by attaching a piece of cordage to the ends of a strong, but bendable stick. Adjust the tension until you can wrap the bow string once around the spindle. With a piece of wood in the palm of one hand to hold the top of the spindle in place, make quick, sawing motions with the bow.
-A Fire Plough consists of a spindle and a fireboard with a groove in it. Place your tinder nest near the end of the groove and vigorously rub the tip of the stick back and forth along the groove towards your tinder nest.
   Friction is not the easiest way to start a fire, in fact it’s arguably the hardest, but it may be your only option. Use the same type of wood for the spindle and fireboard for best results and make sure the wood is bone dry. Don’t’ give up if an ember doesn’t pop to life after just a few grueling minutes of effort, this method takes a lot of time and energy, even for the pros.

Using Sunlight-
-A lens from a pair of eyeglasses, a magnifying glass or binoculars can ignite your tinder nest within seconds in full sunlight. Adjust the angle and distance from your tinder nest to obtain the finest focal point possible.
-Any clear liquid, even urine, can be used to focus sunlight. By using a clear plastic bag, rubber glove, balloon, or even a sheet of plastic wrap, you can form a spherical shape to focus the sunlight on your tinder nest. Experiment with different sizes to obtain the finest focal point possible -too large a sphere will distort the sunlight too much.
-Any concaved reflective surface can also focus sunlight, such as the bottom of an aluminum beverage can, but it needs to be polished as mirror-like as possible. Fine steel wool or a piece of cloth and mild abrasive will do the job –household powder cleansers, toothpaste, even chocolate because it’s creamy and grainy.
-Ice can also focus sunlight if clear and properly shaped into a lens. You can carve a lens shape with a knife, or by grinding a chunk of ice on a rock or other abrasive surface. You can fill a small bowl with water and let it freeze, hopefully before you do. Polish with water and you have a focusing lens.

-You can easily produce a chemical fire by combining two separately safe items. You need potassium permanganate “Washing Soda” (Commonly used as a water softener and swimming pool additive) and glycerin (the kind found on the drugstore shelf to soften rough skin). Make a small pile of potassium permanganate crystals on your tinder nest and add a few drops of glycerin. A couple drops of water will accelerate the reaction so lightly damp tinder isn’t a problem making the reaction, but it obviously might be problematic with keeping it going -the reaction doesn’t last long. You don’t want to breathe in the reaction vapors so be careful when applying CPR.

 Additional tips and tricks-
   Fine Steel Wool makes an amazing tinder assist. A few good sparks will set it off and running, smoldering more than burning. You can add a tuft of steel wool to your tinder nest and spark as usual, or stretch steel wool out on a flat surface and rub it with a 9 volt or cell phone battery to get it going in its own.
   Hand sanitizers containing alcohol, like a first-aid alcohol prep pad, can be used as fuel assists for stubborn tinder.
   You can work a little petroleum jelly into cotton balls to make them waterproof fuel assists.
   Dry tinder may not always be obviously available if it has recently been raining. Look under piles of leaves, brush or rocks -the top layers could be sheltering dry debris underneath. These places may also be sheltering critters as well, possibly poisonous ones, so be careful rooting your naked hand around. A small hollow at the root base of a tree is another place to look for sheltered debris and critters. Check the low boughs of trees for dead branches that haven’t yet fallen to the wet ground. A fallen limb or log may be rotten and soaked on the outside, but still have dry areas inside. Likewise, an old hornet’s nest can be wet on the outside and still have dry parts inside. You can keep moist tinder close to your skin to help dry it out. Speaking of being close to you, check your pockets –dryer lint makes for a very effective tinder nest additive.
   As useful as fire can be in our lives, it can be equally destructive. Please exercise extreme caution when managing a campfire. Extinguish fires with water if possible. If you don’t have water to spare use dirt, but don’t just bury it and leave, that will not extinguish it -roots can smolder for hours and wick up to the surface. Continue adding water or dirt and stirring until everything is cold to the touch. No matter how small and insignificant a fire may seem, every devastating forest fire began somewhere as an ember.

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