Making fire is one of the hallmarks of humanity, before man made fire everyone had to eat out. There is no real history of fire making only conjecture. Before matches man had to acquire fire from a natural source, lightning strikes, forest fires, etc. once attained it was a sacred duty to keep it going. Getting it down to embers in a carrier when traveling from cave to cave. At some point a man (or woman) discovered fire could be made on demand by rubbing two sticks together until the friction built up and a few sparks came off the contact point. This was central to a French movie made in 1981, QUEST FOR FIRES. Subtitles are unnecessary, most words are grunted. The film does have some primitive sex scenes so it is not suitable for young children.
Modern fire making was nearly as primitive prior to the invention of the match in, ...wait for it...China ca. AD 577. The western version was developed in 1826 by English chemist John Walker. The modern match is the result of many years of refinement and burnt fingers. Today’s matches are fairly safe; finger burns are still an issue. Most fires now are started by electronic ignition, water heaters, BBQ’s, cooking and space heaters to name a few. The first jet engines may have been lit by a match but the guy holding the match turned to ash in a millisecond, so something else was done. Wood or coal burning fireplaces were common until the 1980’s when it was learned they contributed greatly to air pollution, home fireplaces were legislated out. Now we are comforted by a digital image of a cheery wood fire.
Enter the camper, those of us who prefer to sleep in the modern cave, a tent. Fifty years ago there was something called, the official Boy Scout Manual, wherein fire making skills were important. To make a fire today begins with dry wood, some very small dry wood and tinder in the form of newspaper or slivers of small dry wood and a match. The Boy Scout Manual illustrates flint and stone use to start a fire, a magnifying lens, two sticks and a waterproof match.
Begin by the gathering of dry wood, about the size of your arm, no big logs, and a selection of sticks and a few handfuls of tinder. Forming an angle of two dry pieces of wood build a tepee over a small bundle of tinder in the point of the angle, use very small wood cut to match size or a twist of newspaper. In the old days’, people carried a dry mushroom, Fomes fomentarius, which could be whittled with a pocket knife to make dry tinder. This mushroom was found on Otzi the ‘ice man’ mummy found in 1991, he lived between 3400 and 3100 BC. Early American pioneers often carried this dried mushroom to make the ‘tinder’ stage of fire making easier. Gradually build your small tepee with slightly large pieces of small, dry wood until you get to small sticks. These should be sufficient to start a hot flame. As the tinder flames up, add more small sticks being careful not to overwhelm the small fire. Add larger sticks across the angle, over your flaming tepee, to burn a hotter central fire. Once the tepee is gone and the larger sticks are burning add a third piece of wood across the angle. You are now in the fire business, a very comforting exercise in outdoorsmanship.
If you go into the bush be sure to add a few things to your pack to start a fire, waterproof matches are a good idea since the sun may not be available to use a hand lens. One sporting magazine suggested some cut up pieces of ‘inner tube’ to kindle a fire when dry sticks are not available. Once on a hunting trip to Idaho I was left for hours in deep snow. I tried to start a fire with the slices of tube, which caught, but there was zero dry wood to make the soggy wood to catch. I snuggled into my coat and waited for the jeep.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman.