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Lighting fires in the bush is a practice that is discouraged because of the danger and the adverse effect on the bush. Dead wood is a vital part of the bush ecology. It is best to think of a fire as a luxury to be enjoyed rarely or when the conditions are very cold or wet. I even hesitate before lighting up the stove or fireplace in a hut, especially if I am alone. When camping, I may light a fire but there must be an existing fireplace and plenty of wood in the area. But firelighting is a valuable skill that you need to know for emergencies.

Placing the Fire

The very best place to put a fire is between the low and high tide marks on a beach - the fire is guaranteed to be quenched by the tide at some point. The next best place is on a gravel bank next to a river where there is little to catch fire, availability of driftwood and nearby water for cooking purposes. Otherwise find a sheltered spot and make sure that the fire cannot spread to any surrounding vegetation. Do not build a fire against a standing tree or log unless it is a signal fire for an emergency.

If there are rocks available then build a sturdy three-sided fireplace with the opening side on to any wind. Make the back of the fireplace higher than the sides to reflect the heat forward. Be aware that some rocks such as greywacke may explode when heated. Deep in a forest, there may be none or few rocks. In this case clear the forest floor of all leaves and twigs down to bare soil in a three metre (9 foot) circle. Use a base of rocks or timber to protect your kindling from the moisture in the soil. In thick loamy soil it may be possible to cut away sods to make a firepit - save the sods to place over the hole before leaving.

Gathering Firewood

Kindling can consist of dead twigs from trees, dry grass, dry bark, dry tree ferns or split dry vines. Dry, dead twigs can be found on many trees even after heavy rain. Other spots to look are under overhanging banks and rocks, against logs or trees or caught in the undergrowth. In a pinch, kindling can be made by shaving matchstick sized chunks from dry sticks. Remember to keep the kindling dry, e.g. in a plastic bag.

Never use green wood for firewood. Most live wood burns poorly. Look for standing dead trees or branches caught in the undergrowth. Driftwood from beaches, lakeshores or riverbeds generally burns well. Wood that has been lying on the ground can sometimes be used if it is not soggy or rotten. To test whether a piece of wood burns well cut a shaving from it and try to light it. If the shaving burns easily then the wood is also likely to burn.

Before lighting the fire:
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Collect enough kindling and firewood to get the fire well established.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Split smaller branches lengthwise using a sharp knife. This exposes the dry core and makes sharp edges which helps the wood to burn.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Break longer branches into sizes that will fit into the fireplace. Some experienced trampers carry a collapsible saw but whacking them against a stone on the ground or stomping on them when tilted against a stone or bank also works.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Clear ash and debris from any existing fireplace.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Prepare to shelter the fire from the rain. Suspend a groundsheet, pack liner, flysheet or tent at least one metre above the fireplace. Beware of damage from flying sparks and rising heat.

Lighting the Fire

In wet weather it is handy to have some form of artificial firelighting aid. These include:
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Solid fuel tablets.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Firelighting paste.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Candle stub (about 2 cm long).
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) A piece of rubber from a bicycle or car inner tire.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Dry paper.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) A magnesium fire starter (no matches needed).

When setting a fire, note that it must have good wood, heat and a clear flow of air. Put your artificial aid in the centre of the fireplace with the smallest kindling around it. Surround this with the driest, smaller pieces of kindling and then small pieces of wood. Arrange the firewood in a wigwam shape (forming a natural chimney), a series of platforms (protects the kindling better) or a combination. Take great care that the air flow through the fire is not blocked, especially when using paper or dry tree ferns to start the fire.

Keep both your matches and striking surfaces in a waterproof container (I find that film canisters work well) and have a backup set with your survival kit. Some outdoor stores sell waterproof matches but remember that their striking surface is not waterproof. Lighters are a useful and popular alternative to matches.

Light the fire and keep adding small pieces of wood, saving the larger pieces until the fire is burning strongly. Blowing or fanning air may help a stubborn fire - direct the air at the base of the fire. Moist logs can be dried by placing them around the inside of the fireplace. A well-constructed fireplace can be used to support logs placed over the fire to keep out heavy rain.

If you intend to have a fire in the morning then prepare for it now. Place dry kindling and firewood in your tent or fly, in plastic bags or under a firmly anchored sheet of plastic. Before going to sleep, put ash or a large rock over the embers so that the fire is easier to light in the morning.

Extinguishing the Fire

Before leaving, put out the fire and cool the fireplace rocks with water. Restore the campsite to its original state by covering the sodden ashes and returning rocks to their original sites.


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