With temperatures plunging to the single digits or into the sub zero realm across most of the U.S., now is a good time to think about staying warm. After all, we don’t want to end up like that guy in To Build a Fire.
So in honor of my friend Brigit, who asked for some "how to" posts on the blog, here is my inaugural life skills post.
If you were a Girl Scout or a Boy Scout, or just grew up in an outdoorsy family, chances are you may already know how to build a fire. But if not, read on. For simplicity’s sake, these instructions are for building an indoor fire in a fireplace or a wood stove. I’ll tackle outside fire-making in a future post.
Step 1 – Ventilation
Many of us can recall lessons about hot air rising from science class. The flip side is that cold air tends to settle downwards. When you prepare to start a fire in your fireplace or stove, make sure you open the flue – this is what allows exhaust to go up the chimney, but you need to make sure the air inside is warm enough for the smoke to rise up through it. There should be a handle that you will need to pull, and on a very cold day, allow the flue to stay open for a good 30 minutes to get a warm air current moving up the chimney. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that all the smoke will pour right back into your house once you light a fire!
Step 2 – Fuel
A fire needs fuel in order to start and keep burning. There are three kinds of fuel you should have in place:
Tinder – used to start a fire. Crumpled newspapers and very small twigs work well. You can gather your own tinder, or purchase “starter logs” and other ready-to-use tinder.
Kindling – “intermediate” fuel used to feed your fire. Larger twigs (say an inch in diameter), or small pieces of a type of wood that is quick to light, such as pine, work very well. Just like most cars won’t go from 0 to 60 instantly, fires won’t go from a single flame to burning full size logs. Kindling is used to aid the transition.
Logs – used to sustain an established fire. Elm, hickory, and oak are solid choices, as is apple. Be sure that your wood has been properly “seasoned”, i.e. allowed to dry out for several months or up to a year. Freshly cut wood contains a high degree of moisture, and should not be used indoors. Pine and other soft woods are acceptable as kindling, but are not ideal to use as your main fuel source.
Step 3 – Ignition
Once your flue is open and you have collected your fuel, you’re ready to build your fire.
- Crumble several pieces of newspaper into loose balls. Pile the balls together into a loose pile, and arrange several small twigs on top. You can either criss-cross the twigs in alternating layers, making sure there is space between them (aka the “log cabin”), or arrange them into a pyramid shape over the newspaper (aka the “teepee”). No matter which method you use, make sure there is some space between and around the twigs, so that air can freely circulate.
- Light the newspaper. As it catches and the small twigs begin to burn, gradually add more twigs. Note: Do not use lighter fluid in fireplaces or wood stoves.
- As your fire becomes established, feed it some kindling. Be careful not to add too much fuel, which can smother a fire. Make sure your tinder and kindling catches and is burning steadily before adding more.
- Once you have given the fire a few helpings of kindling, add a larger log or two. Depending on how quickly the wood burns, you will need to continue adding logs periodically to keep the fire going. If you have a set of fireplace tools, you can arrange the logs to give them more or less space to maximize the fire’s efficiency. It is common for logs to break apart as they burn.
- When you are ready to extinguish your blaze, stop adding fuel and allow the fire to burn out. You can separate and scatter the ashes inside the fireplace or stove to speed up the cooldown process. Allow the ashes to cool completely (which usually takes several hours) before removing them. Never leave a burning fire unattended.