Fire is an interesting phenomenon. As a chemical, exothermic reaction; it is marked by the rapid oxidation of matter (through combustion), which in turn releases tremendous amounts of energy in the forms of heat and light radiation. While fire exists in nature, harnessing its power was a game-changing technology for humanity as it allowed us to cook food for more nutrients, illuminate our surroundings in the dark and provide heat in otherwise inhospitable environments. The importance of our control over fire cannot be overstated; it marked the difference from us living at the mercy of an environment, to having the power to manipulate it around us. Knowing how to start a fire is part of the very foundation of human civilization, and our understanding of it has grown immensely over time.
Fire would have originally been borrowed from natural sources in the environment; lightening or meteorite impact, volcanic activity, etc. Having to feed a found fire in order to keep it alive can be effective but inefficient. This prompted the development of fire-making techniques in order to create fire when, and where we wanted. While various fire-making techniques exist today, understanding what fire actually is (and how it happens), can aid in your ability to create it and have you controlling this elemental force in no time at all.
While fire is considered to be a chemical reaction, combustion is considered to be an event; it requires necessary parts to begin, and it will end with the removal of one or more of those parts. Fire requires three parts, which are typically illustrated in something we call The Fire Triangle.
This simple diagram can significantly aid in your understanding of how fire works, and how to create it. The fire triangle demonstrates that in order for fire to exist, a fuel must be met with heat and an oxidizing agent (which is usually oxygen, hence the name). Oxidation is the process in which electrons are released from a chemical material. Often the term is attributed with rusting but fire is the same thing, only faster. It is the result of something’s reaction with oxygen, and heat can speed this process up. Without getting too into the chemistry of things; just understand that fire can only happen when fuel (a combustible material) is put into contact with not only heat, but oxygen as well. The reaction and event of fire will not take place unless oxidation is occurring, meaning that oxygen must be present to release electrons from the fuel. If you recall our lesson on how a battery works, you will remember that electrons are the “loose particles” which orbit an atom. Atoms are the smallest building blocks of matter, so the transfer of electrons can have profound effects on the material source. In the case of fire, electrons are being expelled from a material source being the fuel, and as a result the fuel will deteriorate as atoms start to fall apart without their electrons. Think of fuel as being a material where part of it (electrons) are being replaced with air (oxygen). This is why oxygen is required (so that oxygen can swap with electrons), and this is why things burn up; while they aren’t being turned into nothing, they are being converted and broken down into other forms like gas molecules and carbon.
So long as you have enough enough of each of the three elements required for a fire, a chain reaction will occur and the heat emitted by combustion will in itself be the heat required for the next atom of fuel, and the next, and so on, so long as oxygen is present to round out the process. Remove any of the three elements of the fire triangle, and the reaction will stop.
The amounts of any of these three ingredients can vary, but fire will be able to continue based on how much fuel you actually have. Different materials can burn at different rates of deterioration based on density and combustibility. In general, our planet’s air contains enough oxygen for oxidation to occur anywhere, but as you get higher in elevation there is less oxygen present; this is why it is difficult to start and sustain fire at high altitude. At any altitude, the more oxygen you add, the more reaction you will see. This is what fanning a fire is all about; blowing more oxygen on it. Sometimes fanning, or blowing, is required for primary ignition.
The amount of heat required for fire to happen is also variable depending on the fuel material used. Most carbon-based fuel such as wood, will ignite at temperatures starting around 230 degrees Celsius (446 degrees Fahrenheit). This means that in order to set wood on fire, you need to raise its temperature to this level. Creating this temperature is where we truly get into the various methods of making fire, since this kind of heat is likely the one thing you will not find laying around.
Heat can be generated by friction, percussion, or accumulated radiation (like solar heat and concentrated light). While the ingenuity of humans and importance of fire have prompted the development of simple tools to simulate any of these fire-making phenomena (such as lighters, matches and burning-lenses), any of these processes can be exercised using simple materials and tools that we can fine laying around at home or outdoors in nature.
Friction is what happens when material rubs against something else. As these materials break down, they release electrons as heat (sound familiar?). Continued friction can cause the material residue (powder, fiber, wool) to continue to heat to a point where it begins to oxidize, which is marked by the emission of light, heat and often smoke. This initial, tiny heat source is known as an ember, or coal, and it is what you can use to make a fire of any size so long as you scale up appropriately. Fire needs to start small; small things can ignite larger things so long as they sustain a constant burn of heat to apply, and don’t forget that this reaction only exists as long as there is fuel to burn. Embers and coals deteriorate rapidly so they will need to be used to ignite another, longer-burning fuel, very quickly. As mentioned, if wood burns at approximately 230 degrees Celsius, friction must be applied until your starter fuel reaches this level. The introduction of oxygen at this temperature will cause ignition.
When creating heat from friction, you will want material that can break down and splinter enough so that it can create a heated catalyst of coal and ember; wood has been humanity’s favorite since day one. Spin it into more wood by drilling it with your hands, or with the help of a bow drill. Making fire with friction is considered to be the most primitive and earliest form of making fire that was developed by humanity. Automated solutions like matches and lighters have made it largely obsolete, but if you can’t obtain these (or the means to create percussive heat), friction can be used to create heat and subsequently fire.
Percussion is similar to friction in that it creates heat when two things come into contact with each other. It differs however that the “sparking” that occurs is more dramatic reaction between two different materials. Percussive heat is generated when a hard, dense stone is struck against an often softer stone containing iron (or refined iron itself). This is where the term “flint and steel” comes from, as people came to use these two particular materials most often in creating percussive sparks. As the hard stone strikes the metal, it chips off particles of iron so quickly that they oxidize and ignite into molten embers in a process much more exaggerated than what we see in friction reactions. These sparks of burning metal can be used in the ignition process with ease, and while different forms of iron burn at different temperatures in different concentrations of oxygen; conventional iron and steel burn at approximately 1200 degrees Celsius in atmospheric air (20% oxygen). This temperature is beyond the heat requirement to ignite most fuels (like wood at 230 degrees Celsius), and as a result using percussion fire making methods is extremely effective. Sparks of molten metal can be introduced to a starter fuel such as tinder, which when burned can be applied to larger fuel sources in order to sustain fire.
Concentrating radiation for heat can be done in a variety of ways, but so long as you are staying away from ionizing radiation (which will make you sick), this can be a safe and relatively effortless way to start a fire. Light is the most common form of radiation used in this circumstance, and it can be harnessed and concentrated simply by the use of a lens. When light is reflected and concentrated through a lens to a point of convergence, electron energy being transmitted through the light will accumulate and “jam together”, resulting in compounding heat. If this convergence point is situated on a pile of combustible tinder in open air, you are providing the three things needed for fire: heat, fuel and oxygen.
Any of these methods will help you create a flame, as will matches or lighters. A flame can provide the heat required to ignite another fuel, and another. When building a fire, start small. Tinder is the term given to fire-starting material that ignites easily and contains enough oxygen to promote combustion. This can be cotton, paper, kindling and other tiny fragments of fuel that will catch on fire without much effort. Small amounts of fuel (like tinder) are easier to ignite than large amounts, so scale up and consider the things that will destroy fire, like the removal of any of your three ingredients which can be exacerbated by the introduction of things like water or wind.
An ember can be used to ignite tinder, tinder to ignite sticks, sticks to ignite logs and logs to ignite anything else, from trees to buildings.
While oxygen is required for fire to burn, excessive wind can extinguish it. Assuming the wind has oxygen in it too, it is not the same oxygen being used in the reaction at the time, and the wind can move so quickly that its own oxygen doesn’t get caught in the process while also removing the oxygen that is being used in combustion. Wind can also significantly cool a fire by additionally carrying away much of its heat radiation, and without sufficient heat the fire’s reaction will cease. So remember that while fire needs air, blocking it from excessive wind will promote combustion.
Water is commonly used to extinguish fire, and it does so for a few reasons. Water is generally colder than fire, and adding water to a fire is a very easy way to cool it to temperatures below ignition point. While water contains oxygen (like wind), it is not in a form that can be used for such rapid oxidation in the fire’s fuel. Rather, water will consume the heat in order to boil and evaporate. Water’s conversion to gas (evaporation) is a much simpler process than combustion, and energy will take the path of least resistance every time. While water can smother a fire by blocking it from oxygen, it is more abundantly stealing the fire’s heat energy for evaporation, since it is an easier process for the heat electrons to contribute towards. This is why starting fire with wet materials is incredibly difficult; all the energy being created is being used to evaporate water. If you are lighting a fire in the rain, you will have to dry your fuel and evaporate water from it before being able to ignite it. However at certain temperatures (and pressures), even water will ignite and more often than not it will actually explode. As a result, using sand or carbon dioxide extinguishers are a more effective way to put out most fires. Both will rob the fire of oxygen, which put an immediate stop to the oxidation process and ending combustion.
Different chemicals can be used to create slightly different variations of fire which can’t be extinguished by conventional means, but your standard fire can be easy to start and simple to control as long as you take necessary precautions. As per usual, the creation and use of fire can be regulated in different regions depending on factors such as the size, fuel used or purpose of the fire. Research the rules and laws of where you are in order to determine whether you are permitted to create the fire you want to start.
Never start a fire without a plan of where you want to contain it, and how you will put it out if need be. We carry a variety of extinguishers in our store in addition to fire-making tools (such as matches and lighters). We also sell tinderboxes, which can be a valuable way to store and transport your fire-making tools and starters. Anytime you have volatile material (like tinder and matches), you should keep them stored in a safe, airtight container (keeping oxygen out) in order to ensure that you do not accidentally ignite things all over the place.