How To Build A Fire
January 19, 2021

I have no idea how to build a fire. It’s true, I did build a fire yesterday but still I have no actual knowledge or set list of steps I should take to build another one. If I were ever freezing cold or in desperate need of fire there’s actually no way I could produce a flame fast enough to warm my body or cook food (that I also can’t hunt) and I would probably die. The fire I started was born out of boredom and from having an entire Sunday afternoon with nothing else to do. My hope was to get a roaring blaze going quickly and then burn every stick, log, leaf and branch I could find. Four hours later I had barely gone through what I had originally gathered. But I did make a fire and I did burn those parts from all those trees.

No. I do not know how I built this fire and I still haven’t developed, or even Google’d, instructions I might take next time to build another. What I do have is a series of “not to do’s” with the first one being, “don’t pile all the cold, wet timber you can find into a circle of cold, wet stones on top of cold, wet ash then stuff it full of various kinds of fire starter and think this is how you start a fire.” I also have what I didn’t have before I fumbled my way through several fits and starts that did actually result in a roaring fire that still had hot glowing embers the next day…a method.

It’s probably important to add some transparency as it’s starting to sound like I was camping or doing something significantly outdoorsy. I wasn’t. I’m killing time during Covid at my closest friend’s home in Connecticut and, having a lot of dough, he and his family also have lots of land with lots of trees that are constantly falling down and need lots of hired hands to gather them around lots of massive stones so his friends (me) can get our hands dirty not building fires. The work these men do is back breaking and it’s done in the coldest days of winter and the hottest days of summer. Their attention to detail is stunning and the results are breathtaking. I like to think that burning the odd tree means one less they have to shred or haul away but I’m sure the four foot stacks of dead wood isn’t worth the eye sore to people that are used to leaving a home’s grounds with every blade of grass in place. So if I’m going to do my part I’ve got to hurry…and I’ve got to build a fire.

I started at around one o’clock in the afternoon. The temperature was in the low 30’s and the sun, which this time of year slides for hours horizontally across the trees from left to right rather than dipping down into them and disappearing, wouldn’t be high enough to offer any additional warmth. That’s not to say these were desperate conditions but if you turned you back to the treehouse, pool, man-made river and actual house and were somehow able to ignore the frozen but very manicured trails leading off into the state park you could pretend to feel death’s cold shadow lingering over you.

Like I said, or I think I said this, I can’t really remember because I’ve spent so much time not getting to the point, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t mentioned that I started by filling the fire pit with as much wood as I possibly could. I did have somewhat of a plan in that I started out with what I considered kindling. This base layer was mostly made up of moist twigs, frozen leaves, wet and small-ish branches and the trees they were ripped from. Then I would smash that down with larger, water-logged logs. Then another layer of kindling and then another layer of logs. I’m absolutely certain that wet, icy wood is not the best material for building a fire but at least I had the brains to make it nice and dense so no air could get in or out.

I should also mention that I also filled it with three different materials whose sole purpose is to make things catch on fire. The first were these odd sized sticks covered in a tacky and highly flammable substance. In a fireplace you can count on two, maybe even just one of these, being enough to get a solid blaze going. I started my build buy carefully planting about a dozen of these in and around the timber. The second item I had was a can of packets filled with white liquid that looked like hand soap. Each one consisted of about two ounces sealed in small, plastic squares. I don’t read directions but I’m sure it said to lay them on wood and light them on fire so that’s what I did with about a dozen of them to start. For the next hour I lit a series of tiny fires throughout the pile that mostly resulted in lots of smoke and no real fire after the packets and sticks had all burned up. So I placed another round throughout the pit but this time made sure to carefully avoid any places I had set previous fires and basically started from (cold, wet) scratch.

At this point I’m I realized I was out of any unnatural substance to start a fire so it was probably time to give up. The logs were barely smoldering and the sad plume of smoke was beginning to dissipate. So instead of doing what I should have done and walked the hundred yards to the house to have a cup of coffee and watch football I decided to do it all again. Only this time a different way. I know that sounds like a moment of clarity as if I had learned something and having gone down this dark road I was emerging having changed. I wasn’t to let fire conquer me. I was going to show the elements in charge. No. It’s not that dramatic. Or cool. I just decided to stay down there in the cold as the sun skimmed the tops of the trees and the day got colder and colder and continue trying to not build a fire. I was going to start over. And that’s what I did.

An hour’s worth of work dragging sticks, branches and logs into the fire pit was all for nothing as one by one they all came out of the pit and onto the surrounding ground. My new approach was to start small. I only piled a few sticks and twigs into the pit and with what little of the liquid I had left I got a very small bit of flame. I should say now that I’m not sure what that liquid was. It was in a white bottle with a red spout and for all I knew it could have been gas. It was in a box with a bunch of tools that’s kept outside and I apologize if it’s vital to someone else’s work. I used all of it and even threw the empty bottle into the flames after squeezing all that I could out of it. Speaking of burning random objects I’m pretty sure I’ve been drinking from a carcinogenic container. After finish off a coffee I brought down in a disposable cup I tossed it into the flames thinking it would burn out in no time. But this was no ordinary cup. It had an overly designed exterior that did a really nice job of insulating your hand from hot liquids but it also created a massive flame that burned for a frighteningly long time. It’s black coating shifted to a grey, almost snake-like finish before floating away as ash. Then the inner layer caught fire and, trapped under a log, actually spewed flames out the side. There’s something alarming when things don’t burn the way you expect them to. Maybe we have some sort of instinctual knowledge of petroleum or other chemicals that lets us know to avoid items that take a particularly long time to burn or do so in spectacular fashion. Avoid anything that burns like that. Especially these coffee cups. And witches.

After I while I managed to grow this flame into a decent sized fire. I was slowly adding the smaller kindling and it was catching nicely. I did get greedy now and then and add a larger log but this just dampened any progress I had made and set me back a bit. Two steps forward as they say. So I had to be patient. I had to commit to building a very, very small fire and slowly adding more and more fuel to it. I was pretty sure that eventually I could add the larger logs but for now I was committed to the slow burn so I actually sat in the fire pit with my feet right up against the fire, and one by one, added stick after stick. It didn’t occur to me that sitting inside the fire pit might be a bad idea but it did cross my mind that it looked insane when my friend’s step daughter wandered over with one of her friends. They were going on a walk and decided to check on my progress. I’m sure they knew how long I’d been down there and seeing that I had only managed to light a sad pile of brush was certainly the low point of the day. But they were nice about it. They asked a few questions about fire making the possibility of having s’mores later and I answered their questions with all the enthusiasm and know how of a true outdoorsman. They wandered off and I was once again able to focus on nurturing this small flame into a blazing inferno. The truth is that it was actually growing. It was working. I had turned hot pile of coals into a flame. I turned that flame into a fire and now I was starting to add full sized logs and it was becoming a blaze.

That’s when the method started to form. Start small. Don’t rush. Once you have a solid foundation you can build on it. Work on that for a while and don’t try too hard to grow it too quickly. Once everything is working and the whole thing is burning then you can add more. If you add to it too soon you’ll end up with more potential than energy. You have to feed the working parts and don’t over do it.

After only four hours I had done it. The entire pit was filled with glowing hot ash, logs bursting with flames and fire shooting into the sky. Since I’m a human and no human can resist poking a fire with a stick I was also learning what it means to stoke a fire. It means poking it with a stick. Each stab released heat from the burning wood and the fire started to feed on itself as embers floated up above the trees. It was getting dark and a full moon was filling the woods with a beautiful blue light. My hands were raw and covered in scrapes and streaks of blood. My back hurt. My feet hurt. Despite the temperature dipping close to thirty degrees I was considering shedding the sweatshirt I had over a long sleeve hoodie. I reeked of smoke. I was tired.

It felt great.

Just as I was about to call it a day my friend and his wife joined me. He shares my love of safe, private woodland pyromania and immediately set to burning wood. Nature’s fuel was working and soon it looked like a jet engine set on its end with fire shooting up from the pit. It had a quiet roar to it that was especially satisfying. I actually love the conversations that go on during these moments. When its just him and me it usually involves where we should put another fire pit so we won’t have to walk logs too far. Or we discuss how hot the fire is and instruct each other to “stand over here. It’s crazy hot.” It’s not that dissimilar to telling someone to try milk you’ve just discovered is spoiled. Tonight his wife kicked off a discussion about conspiracy theories and we each took turns naming the ones we wouldn’t work to hard to argue against. Her: JFK. Me: Moonlanding.

And that was it. Over four hours of work to build a fire and stoke it into being a roaring blaze and it was time to go to dinner. I had created this living breathing thing that could provide safe food and warmth as well as it could kill and now I was going to walk away from it and let it die. It’s all possibility. It can provide happiness and it can wreak havoc but this one was trapped inside a massive stone prison it couldn’t escape and in which it could not find sustenance. The conditions weren’t right for this one to ever get out of control and grow bigger than it had become so it had to have me there to keep it alive. Without me there to stoke and feed it the fire would just eat all the oxygen it had near it until it choked to death. Without a person to feed it a blazing fire is only potential energy. Left alone it’ll just whither and die. Like a baby.

But I still don’t know what I did necessarily or how I did but I do feel a sort of ethos about the whole thing. Start small. Be Grow slowly. Take risks. Nurture and be patient. Don’t be greedy and once it catches give it all it needs. I’m not sure that’s how you build a fire but it’s the essence of the approach next time I try.

Before I close I should remind you that this is a blog post so there has to be some sort of moral to the story (right?). The whole bit earlier about “having a method” feels arbitrary otherwise. So if you read this again or recommend it to a friend, feel free to replace fire with business, relationship, podcast, well-rounded son or daughter or any other target for fire’s metaphor you might need help developing. As far as I’m concerned this is about building a fire so any personal improvement you get out of it is on you. And you’re welcome.

Neil Berkeley

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