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The secrets of making a good fire

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Fernando Mojik
December 21, 2018
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Basic bushcraft training

 

"Survival are techniques to get out of a difficult situation as quickly as possible, bushcraft are techniques to enjoy living in nature and use its resources". We had never looked at it like this before, but we like the idea. Olivier likes to make fires, but in Patagonia we didn't manage to maintain a campfire for a long time, the wood was too wet and the wind too strong. Zoë was there, patiently waiting for the warm fire that didn't come and Olivier blew his lungs empty on old ashes. Our next adventure, self supported through North America, is a wild expedition. We cycle, walk and canoe through the North American wilderness. Time to sharpen our bushcraft skills. We get lessons from the bushcraft master himself, Siegurd van Leusen, founder of Siegurd.nl.

On a wet Thursday morning we arrive at the parking lot of Staatsbosbeheer in national park Utrechtse Heuvelrug. Siegurd gives us the simple instructions to walk to the location in the forest. The next two days we have a customized bushcraft course with all kinds of techniques that we need in the upcoming months. Setting up a sleeping place, filtering water, recognizing trees and making fire. It has rained a lot in the Netherlands the last days, the perfect conditions for practising how to make fire.

 

Preparations

We explain why our campfire failed in Patagonia. We tell that there was enough wood on the ground. “That’s the first mistake" says Siegurd. "Wood that is lying on the ground for a long time is wet and rotten. It burns for a while, but it doesn't result in a warm fire". "And we used quickfire cubes because all the small wood was wet and we didn't have any paper." Siegurd takes a case full off little boxes. Each compartment contains material that is suitable for starting a fire, tinder. There is dried grass, fluff from a dandelion, bulrush and charred cloth. Charred cloth? We have never seen this before. But it is as it sounds, a charred cotton t-shirt or blanket, and it only needs a small spark that won’t go out again. On the website of Siegurd.nl there is a video that explains how you can make charred cloth. Once back home this is the first thing we make ourselves. We now have a full packet of perfect tinder to start our fires.

The real winner under tinder is birch bark. The bark contains oil, making it extremely suitable for making fire. In addition, the birch tree is an all-rounder. Twigs and toothbrushes can be made from the twigs and the roots, the trunk is good as firewood and oil can be pressed from the bark. However, this is part of an advanced course. We search for a fallen birch tree with a smooth bark. In the Netherlands and Belgium we find birch everywhere, fortunately Siegurd assures us that we will also encounter them in the US and Canada. We cut a large piece of a fallen birch and learn to scrape curls from the bark. Siegurd lifts a fire stick to ignite the birch bark. 'Oh no, we both say'. We have that fire stick ourselves, but we have never were able to make a fire with it. Siegurd teaches us the right technique, with a stable hand posture and strong scratch, and the birch bark burns immediately. "The sparks from the fire stick are of 3,000 degrees" Siegurd tells us. "Everyone can make a fire with it, but you have to know how to use it".

The most important lesson that Siegurd gives us is that the preparation of the fire start in the morning. You have to keep your eyes open all day and collect small wood and tinder when you see it. When you arrive on location, you are often too late or can’t find anything useful.

 

Oh pine

It is time to collect wood. Siegurd tells us that there are seven phases of fire and for each phase you need a different wood size, from phase 1, toothpick thickness to phase 7, the big blocks. For the first stages, pine and spruce are ideal because it is soft wood and contains resin. Siegurd teaches us how to find dry wood in a wet forest. "Trees can be compared to a wet laundry". When the clothes are thrown into a pile, they stay wet and start to stink, or rot, while clothes dry quickly when they hang up. The same applies to trees, so we are looking for dead trees that are still standing. For the first fire phases we look for the branches, specifically those without bark, “these are dry "says Siegurd when we enter a dark pine forest. Another important detail. There is a Christmas song in Dutch 'Oh pine tree, oh pine tree, what are your branches wonderfully beautiful’, but is not correct at all. Christmas trees are spruce, a pine tree is too ugly as a Christmas tree in the house. "Oh spruce tree" laughs Siegurd. Although it has been raining for a couple of days, we get back from the forest with a handful of dry wood. We sort the wood and make heaps with the various phases.

 

Fire in a wet forest

Finally we are ready, we have all the ingredients and techniques and can start with a real fire. The first step is preparing the fire place by digging a pit in the ground. Siegurd teaches us about the dangers of underground fires and breaking stones. Placing stones around the fire is dangerous and useless. We start with the birch bark and lay down the tufts of branches neatly sorted in phases 1, 2 and 3 next to us. If the birch bark burns, phase 1 may be used. The trick is to cross the stages cross-over, not build pirámides, but quietly and one by one over each other. We hold each tree of branches to allow enough oxygen, until the branches catch fire. Finally, the large blocks of phase 7 go to the fire and we have built a warm fire from a 'wet' forest. Zoë smiles with a big smile as she shakes her hands. "From now on I will make the fire!" she laughs at Olivier.

We followed the two-day basic Bushcraft course under the guidance of Siegurd. Do you dive into nature the next summer, or do you like to learn more nature techniques? Siegurd.nl has several courses that make life in nature even more fun.

 

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