The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 146: Starting With Fire

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We think of early humans as not very advanced. But what do you suppose they knew that you don't? This week on The WildeBeat; Starting with Fire

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one forty six.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Before the invention of microwave ovens, electric lights, or even candles, one of the key technologies that kept humans alive for most of our species' existence was a wood fire. In our increasingly urban society, it seems like the skill of building a wood fire is far from a necessity. I frequently see people in drive-in campgrounds who don't understand those basics of fire building that our ancestors depended on.

STEVE: A few weeks ago, in our edition number one forty one, we heard from Norm Kidder. Norm is the vice president of the Society of Primitive Technologies, and a writer and instructor for the San Francisco Bay Area group, Primitive Ways.

NORM KIDDER: So we don't really know at what point our ancestors started making fire as opposed to using fires that occurred naturally from lightning, or volcanos, or that sort of thing... The homo erectus, you know, wandered off into Europe and Asia, apparently able to make fire, and so we're talking a fair time ago. Maybe as much as a million years ago.

STEVE: Another writer and instructor for Primitive Ways is Dino Labiste. One of Dino's passions is the fire making skills of stone age humans.

DINO LABISTE: If you look at our everyday life today, you know, we still use fire. Fire for cooking, fire for heat, we use fire for entertainment in the sense when we do camping sometimes just being around a fire provides that comfort for a lot of modern humans today. If you look at what primitive people used fire for... It cooked their food. It also kept predators away. Fire was used for using to shape tools, for example wood needed to be straightened -- arrow shafts, spear shafts using fire. Fire was used for warmth also. And when the sun goes down, you know you need fire for light. Today we have electricity to actually provide that light for us. So fire was a great way to actually control their environment and also provide the necessary things that they needed in their everyday lives.

STEVE: What are the basics of starting fire?

DINO LABISTE: You need a combustible material, you need a heat source, and you need oxygen... Think about what you're going to be doing as far as using your campfire because burning the wood -- there's a purpose for why you're burning that wood. Whether you're creating a heat source, some light, or whether you're cooking over that campfire, and the type of wood that you gather determines what your purpose for the campfire is.

STEVE: I asked Dino to demonstrate building a fire, and give us an introduction to the basics.

DINO LABISTE: Some of the things that you'll need is a combustible material, some twigs that will actually create intense heat to actually burn your firewood, and you need to collect some firewood in advance also, so get all these material ready before you even start the campfire... If you're using firewood for just a heat source, and you just want an intense heat without any long-lasting coals -- some of the evergreen wood is ideal for that. If you want intense coals for cooking, some of the hardwoods are ideal, like oaks and some of the elms, and hickory, and some of the more harder woods.

DINO LABISTE: So what I'm going to do now is take some of this paper that I have that I've crumpled. I've also gathered some grass. You can use some bark that you find around your campsite. And you can use that as the fuel to start your campfire. And so what I'm going to do, is place some of this grass to the side here that I can use to actually create a little more heat. And once I light that paper, I'm going to take some of these twigs -- and make sure that your twigs are dry before you use them -- and place them over the fire to actually create a much more intense heat before I put my larger logs on there.

DINO LABISTE: If you have matches, you can use that or a Bic lighter to light your campfire. So I'm lighting the paper, and it's taking off, and I'll put some grass around it to actually get a much more intense heat and then I'm going to put some of my twigs over it to get that lighted. So your tinder is the first start there to actually get some of your fire going. I'm blowing into the fire to create a little bit more oxygen. And once the tinder gets going, I'll add some more tinder to actually create a little bit more fire before I put ...a lot of my logs on there. So I've got a couple of the twigs burning right now. And I'll keep adding twigs to that.

DINO LABISTE: So once you get your tinder going, take some of your wood. You can put it in a teepee fashion over that fire, and make sure you don't smother that fire.

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DINO LABISTE: We've got the fire going here, so I'm adding some more wood here to actually sustain the fire. And as I said, you need to make sure that there's oxygen circulating through the fire. So just by teepeeing some of the wood or laying them over the main fire will be adequate enough. When you're making a fire, there's a way of actually sustaining the fire so that you don't have to chop up a lot of wood. You can use logs and put them sort of like in a star fashion, meaning you take one end of the log and just put it into the fire. As the fire is burning, you stoke the fire by pushing that log in. So you don't have to do a lot of chopping of wood. If you need a piece of wood that needs to be broken in half or chopped up, you don't have to use that with an axe, you can put that log over the fire, and let the fire actually burn the wood in half... A lot of people tend to do so much work chopping up their wood when they can actually just put the wood into the fire and just stoke it.

DINO LABISTE: Oftentimes when we think about fires for the campsite, everybody likes to have that huge bonfire, but you know, if you're in a wilderness situation, you just have to think about what you're going to be using that fire for, and you don't need a very large fire for cooking. You don't need a large fire for keeping warm. And just by feeding your wood into the fire every now and then, you can create a good intense fire to keep you warm... If you're going to be doing some cooking, burn your wood down to coals, and just use those coals for actually heating up some of your meat that you want to actually cook over those coals. If you've got some pots, even using some twigs to even create that intense fire to boil your water is just adequate enough. But you don't need to create a really large bonfire in a wilderness situation.

STEVE: Dino Labiste is a ...professional naturalist and a skills instructor for the volunteer group Primitive Ways. Dino, thank you for appearing on the WildeBeat.

DINO LABISTE: Thank you Steve.

STEVE: The fifth principle of Leave No Trace is to minimize campfire impacts. Ben Lawhon, the education director of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, has this advice on minimum impact fires.

BEN LAWHON: A lot of people are under the impression that we are in some way against the use of campfires, and that's certainly not the case. We are in support of responsible fires. And things to consider when deciding whether or not to have a fire, first and foremost is the legal issues, and the regulations for the particular area that you're visiting, and finding out if fires are legal in the area. If they are legal, then the second thing to consider is, is it safe to have a fire right now? Do the conditions warrant having a fire? Is it too windy, or is it too dry? And also is it a responsible thing to do in a particular area? Is this a great location for a fire, or is it a poor location for a fire? The next thing to consider are the skills needed. Do you have the right skills to properly build and manage a fire and make sure that the fire is out before departing from an area? ...And if you are allowed to gather firewood, the thing that we stress is that you're gathering dead wood that's down on the ground that is no larger than your wrist. And the reason that we suggest gathering wood that is smaller than your wrist is so that it will fully burn down to ash.

BEN LAWHON: The last thing that we really try to drive home for folks is making sure that you're managing your fire properly and that your fire is out, and that means out cold. It means to the point that you could put your hands in the ashes, so that when you go to bed or you leave the site, you're not leaving a fire hazard behind.

STEVE: We'd like to hear your questions or tips for basic fire building, and we always like to hear anything else you think about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to more information about learning primitive skills and download a high-quality stereo version of this show, on our web site.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham and Kate Taylor, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one forty six. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- wild listening.

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