Kindling Fire: A Practical Discussion by Susan Pesznecker
Fire . . . As magic users, we’ve all worked with fire, whether lighting candles for ritual, dancing around a magical balefire, sitting a night-long vigil next to smoldering flames, or scrying into a flickering hearth. We adore fire and wax metaphorical . . . Our spirits blaze. Our blood burns. Our passions are ignited.
Indeed, fire is both loved and feared by humans. There’s nothing it can’t destroy, converting matter into so much unrecognizable ash. On the other hand, it keeps us alive. Our Sun—fire incarnate—provides the warmth and light we take for granted and without it, life on earth would quickly end. Fire even seems alive in its own way. We personify it, talking about how it leaps, dances, runs wild, and consumes materials whole and even how the crackling flames “speak.”
The gods revered—and feared—fire as much as as we do today. Consider the story of Prometheus bringing the gift of fire to humans and paying a horrible price for angering the gods. Or the story of Raven, risking everything to capture the Sun and give light to a once-dark world.
In magical terms, fire embodies the four classical elements: smoke becomes air, the flame’s visual liquidity echoes water, ash embodies earth, and the flame is fire itself. But there’s a practical side, too. Understanding fire and knowing how to work with it safely and effectively are valuable additions to our magical tool boxes. Do you know how to build a fire in the outdoors? How to choose the correct type of fire and materials, matching purpose and function?
Read on . . .
Types of Wood
Firewood can be categorized as “soft” or “hard.” Most softwoods come from coniferous trees. This type of wood is rich in pitch and resins; it ignites easily, burns quickly, doesn’t generate much heat, and is easy to split. Some common softwoods include pine, fir, and spruce.
Hardwoods come from deciduous, broadleaf trees. The wood is heavier (hard to split) and denser than that of softwood; it is harder to ignite but burns for a long time and produces significant heat. Hardwood trees include oak, maple, birch, and walnut.
Before You Begin: Consider Safety
Use an existing fire pit. If one isn’t available, remove sticks, twigs, and other ground covers to expose bare earth. Clear a circle for eight to ten feet around the fire, and don’t build under overhanging branches.
Always keep your fire as small as possible, and never leave it unintended—not even for a moment. Keep a shovel and a bucket of water near the fire for safety. Don’t bury hot coals—they can ignite tree roots and start forest fires.
Before leaving a fire, make sure it’s “cold out,” meaning you can put your hand into the extinguished fire and feel no heat.
What Does Fire Need?
A fire needs three components to ignite and burn:
Fuel: Fire must have material to consume. The fuel should be dry and in the right size and amount to encourage ignition.
Oxygen: Fire needs oxygen in order to burn. If fuel is packed too tightly into the fire space, air can’t move through the fire, and the fire will be smothered.
Heat: To start a fire burning, the combustible materials must be hot enough to ignite. If you can’t ratchet up the heat, the fire won’t succeed.
Combustible materials are described according to their size. Tinder is thin, light, dry material that catches fire almost instantly when exposed to a lit match. Naturally occurring tinder includes dry conifer needles, dry grass, and small twigs. Other kinds of tinder include fuzz sticks (thick twigs that have had their surface feathered with a pocketknife), crumpled paper, cardboard, and various fire starters (we’ll discuss these below).
Kindling is heavier than tinder but not as heavy as fuel. It may be as small as one’s little finger or as thick as a broomstick. Sticks are naturally occurring kindling, and more can be split from larger pieces of wood. Kindling requires a boost from tinder and fire starters in order to ignite.
Fuel is the big stuff: large chunks of wood or even whole logs. Fuel will generally not catch fire without the help of tinder and kindling.
Combustible materials should be dry. Yes, wet wood will burn once a fire is hot enough, but it will produce lots of smoke and not much heat. Keep your tinder, kindling, and fuel dry and protected from wet.
Laying a Fire
First, decide which type of fire is needed. For example, a cooking fire is typically a small-to-medium-blaze that burns hot and fast and then settles to create a nice bed of coals. Create a small tepee fire by arranging a tepee of softwood kindling over a fire starter and a big handful of tinder. Leave an opening for lighting the fire. As the fire ignites, add more kindling and then hardwood fuel. Allow it to burn down to form coals.
A ritual or ceremonial campfire catches easily, builds to a crescendo, and then slowly subsides—mimicking the way a ritual raises energy and then releases it. Begin with a tepee (see the cooking fire instructions above), placing one or two fire starters in its center. Next, use pieces of softwood fuel to build a “log cabin” around the tepee. Light the fire when the event begins—it should burn steadily throughout the ritual.
Vigil fires tend to be small and stable, burning steadily through several hours. Start the fire with a softwood tepee, then feed it with small to medium pieces of hardwood fuel to keep it going.
Fires built as heat sources work best as “reflectors.” Set up a vertical barricade one to two feet tall made of wood, stone, or brick. Build a softwood tepee in front of it, adding hardwood kindling and then hardwood fuel against it. The barricade will reflect the heat back out, providing warmth.
Bonfires, also called balefires, are big and wild. Safety is a main concern with these—i.e., keeping the fire spectacular but under control. Clear an extra-large area around the bonfire. The type of wood used doesn’t matter much: you just need lots of it!
Fire starters are materials that help ignite tinder and kindling. Here are three of my favorites:
1. Using a cardboard egg carton, fill each of the egg compartments with lint from the clothes dryer screen. (Cotton balls, sawdust, and wood shavings will work, too.) Melt paraffin or bits of old candles and pour the hot wax over the stuffed egg carton compartments. Allow to cool, and then break apart. To use, place one or two fire starters on a base of wood and top with a handful of tinder. The wax and cardboard will ignite the tinder quickly, and the wax will melt over the wood base, encouraging it to burn, too.
2. Pull 100-percent cotton balls apart with your fingers, forming a flat oval. Massage plain petroleum jelly into the cotton until it is saturated, then roll the cotton back into a ball. Store these in a small container (a metal mints container works well). To use your “jelly balls,” place one or two on a wooden base, pull up a few cotton strands (as wicks), and light. Each one will burn for several minutes, and the petroleum will melt, spreading flames across the wood.
3. Charcoal briquets saturated with lighter fluid can be lit with matches. Placing these on a wooden base and topping with tinder will get your fire going in no time.
Char cloth—charred cotton—is a traditional fire starter, as is fatwood—a resin-rich wood taken from certain pine trees. Blobs of pitch, picked off conifers, work brilliantly as starters, too. I like to light fires with plain old “strike anywhere” wooden matches. They’re sturdy, and the matches themselves become additional pieces of tinder. Keep your matches dry by storing them in a ziplock bag; waterproof individual matches by dipping them in melted wax or clear nail polish.
Always start any fire with a large handful of tinder (and a fire starter or two!). Arrange a tepee of kindling around it and light the tinder. As it ignites and burns, add more kindling and then begin to add fuel. When adding wood to the fire, remember that the flames need air: maintain spaces between combustibles to let air move through the fire. The tepee is an ideal shape for starting a fire because it encourages the material to heat quickly, pulling air up through its base.
Cool Tools and Special Effects
Starting fires with flint and steel or magnesium and steel is both fun and showy. If you have ample sunshine, you can also experiment with fire starting via magnifying lenses.
Hand bellows or bellows tubes (which look like long steel straws) blow air into the fire’s center, encouraging it to ignite.
Tongs or pokers are useful for moving pieces of wood, and heavy gloves will protect your hands from the heat.
Commonly available chemicals can add color to your campfire. Throw in handfuls of salts or soak small pieces of wood in chemical solutions and allow them to dry before burning. Examples:
• Borax: yellow-green flames
• Copper sulfate: blue-green flames
• Potassium chloride: purple flames
• Sodium chloride (table salt): yellow flames
And, of course, you can add bits of herbs, essential oils, salt, or other magical substances that suit your purposes.
Extinguishing the Flames
To extinguish the fire, allow it to burn down, then use tongs or a stick to stir and spread out the remaining coals. Scatter water over the coals and wood until there is no more steaming or hissing. Smother any remaining heat with dirt or sand. Wait a minute, stir again, and then (cautiously) examine the area for any signs of heat. It should be cool enough that your bare hand could touch the wet area safely. Repeat the process as necessary.
Behold the practical magic of fire.