How to start a fire

My parents burned wood throughout my childhood and I’ve heated with wood most of my adult life. I use about one box of matches per year. So from age 20 to age 80 (that’s where I am today) is 60 years. And 60 years @ 1 box = 60 boxes. And 60 boxes @ 250 matches = 15,000 fires. Not sure how precise that estimate is but how many thousands of fires have you started?

Here’s what it’s come down to. If I need to start a new fire from scratch, I skip the kindling wood and newspaper and all that, stack up my wood, and insert a cloth soaked in kerosene into the stack. One match and I have a fire.

Here’s a link to the “Azerbaijani Lady” (with 3 million views) cooking outside. At 4:08 to 5:08 she is shown starting a campfire with one match sans kindling or newspaper. Gee, I wonder how she does that? The Azerbaijani Lady does all her cooking outside and has dozens if not hundreds of videos showing either herself or her husband lighting a fire in similar fashion. Sometimes you can glimpse the kero rag but mostly they hide it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOfhIny0pi4

My other fire-starting scenario is where, in this morning’s ashes, I have some glowing coals left over from yesterday. In general terms, I gather the coals together, put some kindling on top, and blow some air on the coals using bellows.

To gather the coals together I use a 6-inch stainless steel strainer. I scoop up some glowing red coals mixed with ashes, shake the strainer to get rid of the ashes, and dump the coals in a little pile of their own. Leather gloves give my hands better traction. The handle of the strainer is a bit slippery.

For bellows, I don’t use old-fashioned blacksmith bellows. I use a BBQ Fan that runs on one D-cell battery. Try it. You’ll like it. And that’s what you search for on eBay: “BBQ Fan.”

One of the more amusing things I’ve ever had happen to me is to be camping with friends at a provincial park in Canada and have a 15-year-old boy kneel down next to me at the fireside and ask (with a touch of awe in his voice), “How do you know so much about fires?”  It takes a lot to impress a 15-year-old.

strainer + bbq fan


  • Comments (7)

    • 5

      Any thoughts about wood/fuel type?  I started doing fire pits this past fall and the local hardware stores mostly sold birch.  Having never thought about wood selection (usually just whatever was sold on the side of the road, or whatever I could find in the woods) I was amazed at how quickly and cleanly it burnt up, low ash yield (go figure, means you have to buy more!).  I found this site after some googling and hadn’t previously stopped to think about what I was burning, or combinations of it.  Having experimented with other types (not always well labeled…) I am intrigued by the different properties (slow vs fast burn).

      Regarding the coal trick, any thoughts for how to best preserve them?  I recall when I was young at the beach, fire pits had sand in the bottom and if you dug through the ashes the next day you could still find semi-hot coals (maybe sand acid to help insulate/starve them of oxygen?).  Since going with a science/engineered-fire-pit that is designed with better ventilation and ash management, I find even large chunks of coal-like wood seem to break down (almost like a slow candle, but turning to ash instead of wax) after a few hours, if not by morning.

      Regarding the 1-match rule, I grew up doing scouting and learned the whole kindling thing, but as an adult who is lazy, I’ve come to appreciate the relatively inexpensive log starters (though your trick is better, I just don’t have kerosene lying around, am unsure how I’d store it long term in my setting – does it go bad?  Any thoughts on best storage/handling practices and where to buy it? does it go bad?).

      • 7

        Hi Rich. Thanks for the questions.

        “Kinds of firewood” is a long ways off from the topic of starting a fire but it’s worth a quick answer. “Hardwood” consists of deciduous trees (with leaves). Examples are oak, maple, birch, and ash. Hickory (that baseball bats are made from) was the ultimate hardwood-cum-firewood but is nearly extinct. “Softwoods” come from trees with needles and include pine, hemlock, and cedar. Hardwoods are more dense that softwoods and make better firewood. A quick Google search will provide you with a long evening of reading entertainment.

        How best to preserve the glowing coals mixed in with the ashes? I wish I knew. The fact that the coals are hot and glowing means that combustion is ongoing. If you uncover the coals, thereby exposing them to more air, then the rate of combustion increases and the coals burn out faster. But if you remove all oxygen (by sealing the glowing coals in an empty paint can, say) then combustion stops completely and the coals die even faster.

        No kerosene laying around? Hmm. Personally I do go into the winter with a bunch of rags (torn up so they are 1/4 the size of a washcloth) that I refer to as kerosene rags. But they’re not all kerosene. Over the months, I save up all kinds of unwanted combustible liquid — kerosene, paint thinner, mineral oil, turpentine, etc. Stuff I’ve used to wash out paint brushes or wash my hands or wipe down machinery. The one thing these materials have in common is that they will burn. So I soak my rags in this Magic Solution and store them in empty metal paint cans with metal lids (mostly pint size) until needed. I handle the soaked rags with needlenose pliers and, after starting a fire, wash my hands with soap and water to remove any smell. (And no, BTW, kerosene does not “go bad.”) After all that, please note that if you do “color outside the lines” so to speak — by playing with fire or playing with firearms — then you must take responsibility for your own actions.

        Hope this answers your questions.

    • 6

      I watched the 1972 movie Jeremiah Johnson for the first time last night. In the movie, they have to sleep outside under the stars in the middle of winter. So the two guys build up a big fire and make lots of coals, they then bury the coals with dirt and sleep on top of those coals for warmth. In the middle of the night, the new inexperienced guy wakes up yelling and smoking because his bedding is smoldering and burning. The older more experienced guy just chuckles and says “Didn’t put enough dirt down. Saw it right off.”

      That is a survival trick I learned in the movie that I didn’t know before. 

      • 6

        Funny thing about fires and cooking.  With increasing experience, I build traditional wood fires less and less.  For the past twenty  years, I have relied on a canister stove.  I can recall only building perhaps two trad wood fires during that time.  Alcohol, pellet, and canister stoves are easier, less messy, and generally safer that wood fires.

        This doesn’t mean that one should not have expertise in building a trad fire.  There are still occasions where a fire is crucial and no alternatives are available.  of course, if you aree like me, you will be a bit rusty.  i always have a small bottle of hand sanitizer (at least 60 per cent alcohol) handy.  It works quite handily as a fire starter/accelerant.  I routinely carry matches in a waterproof case, a ic lighter, and a small fire steel, cuz there are still times when you really need a fire.

        Of course, there are also time times of high fire danger when any fire is hazardous.  Learn to recognize those times as well.

      • 7

        Have you ever made a friction fire before? (rubbin two sticks together) That is something that I want to do this year. 

        Sure lighter fluid, matches, and a BIC lighter are always going to be my go-to. But I just want to say that i’ve done a friction fire before, and that I possibly could if I desperately needed to.

    • 6

      Ah! Caught in the act! The Azerbaijani Lady’s husband is shown here, quite clearly starting a fire with kero-soaked rag. (Of course he’s not too handy with matches LOL.) But the soaked-rag technique is shown up close and personal. See 7:35 to 8:35. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecEq0fVwAW4 

      To me, the question at hand is this. What do you need most? A fire? Or to parade your primitive skills? If it’s a fire you need, then a patch of cloth soaked in, or sprayed with, a flammable or combustible liquid is the most efficient way to get the job done. 

      • 3

        Interesting discussion about hot coals.  Generally I have been able to coax a fire to life the morning after by careful blowing and application of tinder.  I think the density of the wood fuel is a factor. I once built an evening cooking fire using desert ironwood (Olneya tesota).  It was nice and hot in the evening and the morning after, I just put the coffee pot on and scrambled  eggs without adding any fuel whatever.

        I always carry a Bic (or two), matches in a waterproof container, and usually some sort of sparker.   There are times when a fire is absolutely critical.