To Build a Fire

gathering kindling

You are responsible for managing millions of acres of forested lands, it is the middle of summer, in the fourth year of drought. How do you safeguard these lands against harm? Well, if you’re the US Forest Service, you invite thousands of people to start fires, some of them quite large, in a mostly unsupervised, uncontrolled setting.

It’s called camping. I’m not sure that so many people would do it if they couldn’t have a campfire. The risk is probably much greater in the remote areas, with lightning strikes, or bozos who leave illegal campfires unattended (see: Rim Fire). I tell myself that, as I would like to be allowed to continue to make a campfire.

1926 poster from the Mississippi Forest Services, provided by the Forest History Society on Twitter.
1926 poster from the Mississippi Forest Services, provided by the Forest History Society on Twitter.

As in all things that we do, an orderly process is followed when building a fire. The Resident Expert gathers downed wood for kindling, and collects it in a canvas bag from the Society of American Archivists. The label on the bag is unimportant; you could use one from almost any organization. This wood is brought back to camp, and I praise the quality and abundance of the kindling she has collected.

The evening cooking fire begins with charcoal briquettes in a chimney starter. This yields a reliable base for most any woods that you will than toss on after dinner. And you don’t just “toss” them on any old way. Even though we didn’t start this from tinder, we use twigs and small wood bits in an open structure as the basis for our wood fire, to allow sufficient air flow, and because it looks neat.

Then you can start adding your larger pieces. But be sure to keep poking at it and accidentally knocking down some of the carefully arranged kindling, even though it was perfectly fine the way it was. Your constant attention to the fire will be rewarded, eventually, by a roaring blaze with only a few pieces that just went out for some reason. Sit back now, and observe how the flames work through their process of breaking down the wood with purpose and industry. Actually, you might want to toss another good-sized piece in there first.

I always have one log in reserve for when the fire really gets going. I know that I always do this, because the Resident Expert told me, “you always have this perfect log.”.  Whenever it is announced that I “always” do some thing, I have to quickly evaluate whether it is a good or bad thing. I mean, I’ve always done it, and most likely always will, so you would prefer it to be a good thing. I say that having a perfect log, or “hero log”, as we came to call it, is definitely a good thing. You can just see it: the fire is roaring, you can’t imagine it possibly being any better, and then the Hero Log is added. A fountain of sparks rise into the night, and all gathered around are illuminated and warmed by the blaze.

Except a lot of my hero logs don’t work out. The one I had at the last camp didn’t even really burn; I had to wrap it in other burning wood, and it eventually went away somehow.

Maybe I just haven’t found the true Hero Log yet.

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