Fire making as rain starts

Le 4 septembre 2002, par OldJimbo

How to make a fire while it is raining.

So much for fire starters - how do you actually use one to start a fire ? Well today I had bought myself a new axe as you see in the photo’s so it was time to go to the upper Kitimat River forestry campsite to try things out. The reason for going to this campsite is that I went there for coffee yesterday and know how wet the wood is there. All the firewood in that campsite is cottonwood (Black Poplar), which is terrible to start a fire with until seasoned. You need a good fire to dry the stuff out !

The Key to the Situation

First of all in damp situations, you need a natural tinder that will catch a spark and produce a flame. That was simple - I used cedar bark off living trees. I used more than one tree getting the driest bark. What isn’t seen here is what it looks like when properly shredded. I’ll post pictures of that later. It has to be fine - which you accomplish by crushing between stones or using an axe head , then rubbing very vigorously between your palms. Very very vigorously - this dries it as well as shreds it ! I had already chopped some spruce off a living but fallen tree. This spruce wood is from a wound on the tree and has lots of spruce gum attached. The wood itself is impregnated with gum, and so is dry even on a living tree.

The yellow stuff is the gum. Notice the cedar to the left. You can see where I stripped some cedar bark yesterday. Today I looked for drier stuff.

Here is a closer shot. Besides admiring my new "Hults Bruks" axe you will want to notice the brown wood that isn’t bark - its resin impregnated wood. The wood is required as the resin or gum itself is like oil in a lamp - a wick is required.

This is the bit we’ve been waiting for. This is exactly how much cedar bark and resin impregnated wood I used. Even I didn’t think that It would be enough. It was though. The cedar bark was shredded a lot after I got the borrowed camera out of the rain - but I didn’t break up the resin impregnated spruce wood more than is shown.

The Fire

This is exactly how you DO NOT normally do things. I placed split cottonwood directly on the cedar bark tinder and spruce wood. I wanted to see if there would be enough heat to dry the cottonwood enough to start the fire. Normally you would go around the conifers ripping dead branches from the lower part of living trees. This wood is the driest available and will get things going - especially if split to match thickness. I wanted to see if the spruce would start the cottonwood - and I didn’t even split the cottonwood finely as you can see. Notice the black smoke in the centre and bright flame from the resin. The white smoke is mostly steam from the cottonwood. This isn’t a tepee fire, notice that the wood on top is mostly just stacked against a piece of charred wood in the front. I kept on piling wood on top to keep the rain off. You would think that this would smother the fire - but this doesn’t happen as long as there is an opening for air in the bottom. The wind is blowing into this opening, which is why the fire kept going. Some of the wood on top is placed in an inverted V perpendicular to the wood below - to make more of a slope for the rain to run off. This wood should be sticks not just slabs - to let the smoke out. This wood is removed to add more wood to the fire parallel to the stuff below - then replaced.

Conclusions :

  1. I don’t see how I could have chopped and split out resin impregnated wood without an axe, hatchet or very sturdy knife. Using a 41/2 pound axe it was simple.
  2. It took very little heat from the cedar bark to start the resin impregnated wood on fire. Resin by itself is very hard to light !
  3. I was amazed by how long and how hot the small amount of resin impregnated wood burned. I’ll be honest and say that I was trying to see how much would be required - after a failed attempt.
  4. I was playing - and it did work.. This is not a good example. It’s best to light every fire as though your life depended on it - because one day it might. I should have used dry dead twigs off trees as kindling and split the cottonwood into much smaller chunks. The fire would then have been assured, and would have built up far more quickly.
  5. I like a "lean to" fire with wood mostly parallel and leaning on something. I find that this works better than a taller tepee style fire. The reason you see wood at other angles is to keep off the rain. There was more than the few sprinkles on the rocks suggests ( a tree provides shelter). I build a fire as though I was trying to stop the smoke from getting out, and just keep piling on the wood. As the lower stuff burns through it falls down and the higher stuff falls onto the support and holds things up.
  6. We have a damp climate here but lots of spruce and balsam fir trees ! I built the fire with materials within a few feet of where the fire was situated. I could have used the dry outer bark of the huge cottonwoods, chipped bark off large hemlocks, and the fallen spruce, and used dry dead twigs from standing conifers to get the fire started more quickly in that it would have been hotter and larger more quickly to dry out the cottonwood. Stripping cedar bark and letting it dry out in a pocket close to the body would have been a good idea had I been travelling - as would collecting resin impregnated wood. Collect before you need - forage as you go ! Resin impregnated wood gets very sticky as it warms - wrap it in something before putting in pocket/pack

Post-Scriptum :

If you have questions, criticisms, or things to add - email me please.

Original article at OldJimbo’s site

par OldJimbo



Craig (CRH)
Le 27 juin 2004

I just want to mention that stripping bark from living trees in most situations is not a good idea and on public ground may be illegal.

Stripping bark from healthy trees opens them up to insect infestations and other diseases.

This may be necessary in a survival situation but for ordinary camp fires it’s a bad idea.

Smokey the Bear

Le 20 août 2004
Well, since cedar trees have bark that tends to peel easily, I doubt the author was peeling away the protective inner bark. The outer bark just naturally does this and doesn’t harm the tree.
Le 20 août 2004

My apologies, Craig. I missed your post due to being busy this summer. I just use the very outside bark because this is the only stuff useful for tinder. Taking that doesn’t harm the tree at all. The outside bark that’s flaking off in the case of cedar and birch is easily able to be removed by hand. To use cottonwood bark, you have to chop off pieces, but the bark on huge cottonwood trees here is very thick - and so no harm is done as you just take the very outside layer. While no harm is done to the tree, though, such chopping is unsightly.

Around here, we see many cedar trees with huge strips of bark (inner and outer) torn off the trunk - up to maybe twenty or more feet (6M) up the tree. One strip of 12" (30cm) per tree. This is where native people have taken bark for basket making, and the tree is now a culturally modified tree. Amazingly, I’ve seen no harm to trees so modified, but then again the removing (and preparing) of bark is a skill and since cedars are held in special regard along the coast, everything is done with care. Since cedars are so long lived here, it provides a datable history. I’ve only seen a few trees that show recent bark stripping since basket making is for the most part a dying skill. I’d love to learn the intricacies of such bark stripping - but I’d never do it, because in my case it would be vandalism.

The same philosophy applies when I’m marking trails. Blazing trees is a long lost skill for most people - as many have found out when trying to follow such a trail in poor conditions. Tape is far preferable. It’s also easier to change when the trail is changed... Probably the strangest argument against damaging trees by removing bark is as follows.. I’ve seen very few dead standing deciduous trees around here. When they’ve served their purpose to provide shade for the conifers, and are in turn shaded out and die, they become fungus ridden and fall. Recently in managed areas it’s become common to try to speed up the cycle by ring barking the alders, etc. Despite the fact that the trees are then dying over the next year, they almost never get fungus ridden. It all seemed like a fine idea until it became clear that a real fire hazard had been created !

So - while I believe from what I’ve seen that healthy trees are not going to be left open to fungus or infestations by removing some bark - it is darned unsightly to have trees with bark chopped off. With removing the outer bark from cedars, that will be pretty apparent for a few weeks, then the area will weather in and a person won’t be able to see where bark has been removed.

Michael McGrath
Le 31 octobre 2006

I just had to say . . . Smokey doesn’t have a middle name !

See ’Ya Down the Trail ! MHM

Le 11 octobre 2008
What happened to only taking materials for fire from standing dead trees. You have only mentioned using live trees which is wrong and a very bad example !

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