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How To Build An Emergency Fire

July 27, 2021

It’s one of the most important basic survival needs. It doesn’t matter where you live or where you may be. Some people think they may never need the skill, but I guarantee at some point in your life you will think one of two thoughts: “Thank goodness I learned how to build a fire.” or “Oh, no. What now?” 

Building a fire isn’t natural at all. Even watching some of these ridiculous survival shows you see that many people cannot start fires at times. I hope to guide you in the right steps to take so that you can increase your odds of surviving in a desperate situation. This is one of the skills that need practice, so don’t read this article or watch a video and think “OK, I can do that without ‘doing that.’ ”

Currently, thousands of homes in the United States are flooded and destroyed. People are displaced, and clean water is nowhere to be found. Imagine sitting on your roof, tired and exhausted, surrounded by water that will kill you if you drink it. You would have to find safe drinking water for you and your family. The fastest way to make it safe is to boil the water.

The smartest thing you can do is prep a bit before you ever need to start a fire. Lighters, lighters, lighters! I am a firm believer in having two lighters in your pocket, cars, purses, boat, camper, and a dozen or so in the house at all times. Even lighters are not foolproof, but the only way you can get a better edge on what may happen is to carry a flamethrower. For less than $10 you can buy all the lighters you will need, it’s probably one of the best ways to spend a few dollars.

How To Start A Fire

Kindling is key! All fires need kindling to start. I like to use a cotton ball saturated with petroleum jelly for my initial start, with these ingredients your fire will burn for a long time. Put the saturated cotton balls in a little Ziploc bag and roll it tightly. Make sure to put these items in storage with your other fire starting gear.

I also like to use manufactured synthetic logs that you can buy at the store and cut into 1”x1”x6” pieces for kindling. These pieces will also burn for a long time and make it easy to start your fire or even to cook with or boil water.

Other fire-starting techniques are great skills to have but should not be your go-to methods for starting a fire. I have used every method I came across to start a fire. Take the time to learn how to make flint, electrical, chemical, sun or friction fires but don’t depend on them as your first methods to start a fire. I would only use other methods if I have lost my lighter. Time is key in an emergency; why take an hour to get a fire started when it can be done in 2-3 minutes with proper kindling and a lighter?

Now that we have the fire source and kindling down we need fuel to burn. Some fuels are better than others, and depending on your situation you really need to use your head. Some of the best fuels come from tree wood. Branches can be collected off the floor if you have access to them. Even if you live in the city you can find wood to burn in parks, playgrounds, and front yards. If you are lucky, they may even be dry.

In some situations, you may not have access to that sort of wood. I made it through a terrible snow storm once by burning furniture. You won’t go long on burning pine furniture, but in my case, we made it through a night until I was able to get more wood. As I said, you never know where the emergency will be and this one happened to be right in my home.

In the woods, more often than not, the wood will be moist or wet. Dry wood is a luxury that is not usually available in emergency situations. Some ways to find dry wood is under dead trees, under ledges of banks, rock cropping’s or even manmade structures. When you have collected the wood you think you need, go back and triple it. You can never have enough wood!

Some types of wood will burn wet or moist. Pine branches go up like they have gasoline in them. The trick with wet pine branches is to break them up and concentrate the branches to as thick a pile as possible. Fill the pile with plenty of thin kindling and wood before you start the fire.

Once you set it up the fire burns fast and will only last seconds, so don’t skimp on the kindling. After you see the kindling has caught fire use really thin branches and build your fire, slowly. Keep it hot because, as you add wood, it will have to first dry out then catch fire.

If you need to burn other wet woods make sure to strip off the bark. The bark holds much more water when it’s wet or humid out. After you strip off the bark, strip off slivers of wood to burn. They must be thin in order to dry out and burn. Larger, thicker pieces of wood will just steam and stay wet, letting the fire burn out.

Again, depending on your location, you have some choices of how to contain the fire. In an emergency the last thing you need is a fire getting loose on you. Always try and contain the fire with a pit of stones. Fires, especially wet ones tend to spark and pop, sending embers shooting. If you are in your house make sure not to start any fires unless you have a chimney. Carbon monoxide is a dangerous gas that comes with fire and will kill you!

If I were in one of the many flood situations that the US is currently experiencing and stuck on a roof or attic, I would bust a hole in the roof for the smoke to exhaust out of. Then I would use a roasting pan that has a lid for a fire pit. After that, place another baking pan upside down under the roasting pan creating airspace so that your floor won’t catch fire. The roasting pan lid can be closed so that the fire will go out when needed, saving on fuel (wood) and turning it into charcoal which will start faster the next time. 

Fuel in this situation could be found in pieces of flooring, untreated furniture, banisters, and even picture frames. If you can’t leave your house to find wood, make do with what you have but don’t remove any structural wood.

Here Are A Few More Methods To Starting Fires:

  • Battery and conductor (steel wool, wire) – Regular batteries and even automobile batteries can be used to start a fire. Either the spark of making the battery contacts can be used or the heat from maintaining battery contact against the negative and positive could be used.
  • Chemical (glycerin and antifreeze) – Chemicals can be used to start fires. Some are really dangerous, but Glycerin and anti-freeze are the easiest and safest to come by. Just mixing equal parts will start a hot fire to get kindling burning.
  • Flint and steel – This old classic is tough for anyone that doesn’t practice with it. Flint and steel are best utilized with char cloth.
  • Friction fire – Friction fire is really glamorous, and what most people imagine when thinking about survival fire starting. So many styles of friction fires exist, and even in idle conditions, success is spotty.
  • Solar rays – With a clear bag and water, sunlight rays can be focused on one spot to ignite dry tinder. Magnifying glasses and even the bottom of a shiny can focus the rays of the sun, if you are lucky.
  • Matches – Matches are good but still tough to use in moist conditions. You may get waterproof matches or even dip your regular matches in wax to try and keep them dry.

With all the ways that you can start a fire, give yourself the best chance by pre-planning with a lighter and tinder. Putting little Ziploc bags with fire needs in a jacket pocket, cars, purses and book bags is just plain common sense!

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    Thomas king
    August 16, 2019 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks for the tips

    Catherine Wright
    June 27, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    I have learned a great many ways to start fires over the years. In urban situations like the flooding I just experienced in Arkansas, a great fire starter aid is dryer lint. It goes like gangbusters with very little coaxing. Reading glasses can be used on a sunny day to magnify sunlight, a cheese grater can make sawdust/ shavings. Once you have a fire going it’s a good idea to keep a smudge pot going so you don’t have to try to keep the fire going 24/7 or restart it. Simply collect some hot coles in a fireproof container and keep a lid on it but slightly ajar so it gets just enough air to keep from going out.

    Bruce M Fallis
    December 21, 2018 at 3:33 am

    Pack some dryer lint. Light, very combustible. Maybe a candle.

    Lawrence M Shaw
    December 5, 2018 at 12:24 pm

    Good stuff

    Tactical Nut
    May 22, 2018 at 3:08 am

    I would also recommend Stormproof matches over waterproof. It is almost impossible to put them out. Just add a few extra striker pads in the kit to make sure you always have something to strike them on.

    Tactical Nut
    May 22, 2018 at 2:42 am

    I have practiced MANY different ways of starting fires and all of what you have said work, and exactly what I would recommend. Learn as many ways as possible as you never know what situation you may find yourself in!

    April 27, 2018 at 12:07 am

    Thank you so much. . . I find it helpful especially now that i am traveling doing camping… Being prepared all the time for any circumstances that may happen is great…so, well done thanks for the advice

    Marius Grebstad
    March 31, 2018 at 7:06 am

    This had a lot of good information! I would add the possibility of starting a fire with a phone battery and a knife.. But as a extreme last resort. But in a emergency it works wonders, and who doesnt have a phone battery? But really important to have a lot of dry kindling, cause this is one shot type of deal. Take a big knife, place it sideways (across the shortest side of the battery,in the middle of the battery.) Push the knife into it. things should happen as soon as you get the knife in a bit. Be ready with dry kindling as the fire from the battery is short lived. And above all! Be careful and wear proper safety geat like glasses and gloves!

    February 23, 2018 at 4:18 am

    These are awesome tips! Someone once gave me a mint tin that was full of dryer lint and pieces of news paper and told me that’s what they used to start the fire that saved their life once while on a hike!

    Ingo Eckstein
    February 9, 2018 at 4:07 am

    Great write-up! Here how I usually make a fire:
    – It might take me an hour to prep a fire. Light the fire 5 seconds and then wait.
    – Have a good knife, Axe or/and Saw ready, at least 1 match with match box or a lighter
    – You need dry kindling. Dead pine branch ends from the bottom of a tree or cut up dead wood. Even after days of rain, you can still find dry kindling. Usually not on the ground.
    – Check for wind direction. Use two big logs to make a channel. Possibly dig a small channel between the two logs.
    – Lay plenty of tinder down and fill it so its level with the top of the logs. Then slightly bigger sticks, then bigger and bigger. Always leave a little air between the bigger sticks and the bigger logs. The wood pileup should be around 20 inches.
    – Use 1 match and light it from the bottom. Once a few tinder sticks are ignited, move away and let the wind push oxygen into the fire.

    October 9, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    You can take your knife and scrape it across your socks to get lint and then mix the lint with chap stick to obtain the same cotton ball (dryer lint) / petroleum jelly combination.
    Fritos also start a fire quite well. Crush, light and add kindling. I always carry a snack bag of Fritos in my pack. They can serve two purposes.

    October 4, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    Hey Joseph, great article! I think more people should take the time to learn skills like this. One thing I wanted to mention, fires usually include 3 types of materials. 1) Tinder, 2) Kindling, and 3) Fuel. Tinder is the small dry stuff you use to initially ignite your fire. Kindling includes sticks that are about the size of your fingers. Fuel is made up of larger logs and such. In your article, I believe “kindling” was actually describing tinder. Thank you so much for sharing your skills and expertise!

    October 4, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    Just be careful with batteries…. Touching a 9V to fine steel wool will make a great fire, but most car batteries will catch fire themselves or start leaking battery juice(35% sulfuric acid) with a ph of 0.8, which will corrode off as much skin/flesh/bones as it touches.

    October 4, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    Also dryer lint (which is usually discarded) makes a good firestarter. Just put some in one of those ziplock bags.

      December 12, 2017 at 6:22 am

      Dryer lint with Vaseline mixed in or cotton balls soaked in alcohol squeezed out then coat with Vaseline work fantastic a sealed container is recommended bags rip