Understanding Fire

Written by David Ellis aka Pointman

Understanding Fire


Fire has been around since the dawn of mankind. When man learned how to make and control fire, only then did he really begin to evolve. Knowing several different methods to make a fire is a must for anyone wanting to spend time in the wild. Knowing a few primitive methods can prove to be a lifesaving skill that no one should be without.

What you will learn in this segment is the mechanics of just exactly what makes a fire, the types of fuel that can be used and different ignition methods. In addition, I’ll show you some examples of fire starting materials, how to configure your fire for a specific purpose and how to keep it going once you make it. Let’s start with some really basic knowledge.


The Fire Triangle

There are three things you must have in order for a fire to ignite These are most commonly known as the “Fire Triangle”.

fire triangle

The three requirements are shown in the image above as Oxygen, Fuel and Heat. Remove any one of the three, and the fire will be extinguished or it will be impossible to have a fire. This is why we are always told to keep fuel sources and ignition sources stored separately.

Oxygen – Well, this one is pretty easy because everyone knows what oxygen is. It is in the air all around us and can also be concentrated for use in rocket fuel or in hospitals for patients with breathing difficulties, or for scuba gear. What you may not know is that at higher altitudes the lower concentration of oxygen in the air can actually increase the difficulty in making a fire. Moreover, you have to have enough oxygen in and around your fuel so the fire can “breathe”.

Heat – Heat can be produced in many ways as we will see in a moment and usually requires a rise in temperature of at least 750 to 800 degrees to bring most fuels to a “kindling point”.

The dictionary defines the kindling point, or sometimes referred to as flash point, as “the minimum temperature at which a substance will continue to burn without additional application of external heat.” Not all substances have the same kindling point which can be helpful or it could be a hindrance depending on the application.

Fuel – There are many types of fuel. Some are gaseous such as butane in lighters, propane used in BBQ grills, and acetylene used for welding. Some fuels are in liquid form such as gasoline, diesel fuel, or alcohol. Still others are solids like wood, paper, rubber or plastic.

For our purposes, we are going to look at how to use wood for fuel since it is abundant in nature. To fully understand how to make a fire, we first need break down our fuel into four main categories:

  •  Tinder – soft, fuzzy, light and easy to ignite
  • Kindling – small twigs less than 1/8” in diameter
  • Sticks – small limbs about 1” in diameter or less
  • Firewood – larger pieces of wood 2” to 3” in diameter or larger

Tinder is used to initially start the fire. It is usually very fine and has a low kindle point or high flammability. Here are a few examples of some good materials that can be used for tinder:

Dry grass
Jute twine
Human hair
Frayed cloth
Steel wool
Vaseline soaked cotton
Magnesium shavings
Cedar bark
Witches beard
Dryer lint
Maya dust
Cattail fluff


Some work more easily than others and some are perfect for wet conditions as we will see in a moment. The tinder is usually arranged into what is called a “tinder bundle” comprised of similar materials, dry grass, a birds nest etc. This makes it easier to be held in the hands for blowing an ember to coax it into full flame by igniting the bundle. Of course this depends on what method you are using. If you are using char cloth with flint and steel or a bow drill, you need to create an ember or small glowing coal to place into the tinder bundle. Once you blow the coal or ember into flame, your prepared pile of loose kindling is then placed lightly on top of the tinder bundle and you are on your way. Other methods don’t require a tinder bundle at all and can ignite the tinder placed directly under the kindling such as when using matches or a lighter. If conditions are wet or damp, a cotton ball rubbed with chapstick or previously soaked in Vaseline will burn for several minutes. This is usually long enough to dry out and ignite your tinder or kindling.

Once you start a fire with your tinder, it will burn up rather quickly so you must have your kindling and sticks nearby. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH! Always assemble all your fire making materials, grouped in graduated sizes, before beginning to make your fire. This way you avoid running around in a panic trying to keep the fire going.

Be careful not to pile on too much wood too fast or you will smother the fire and have to start over. The larger pieces of wood are finally added after you have a suitable fire established and at least the beginnings of some coals.

Don’t forget the other side of the triangle…Oxygen. A fire has to “breathe” in order to burn well. As you are placing more and more fuel on the fire, make sure to leave spaces for the fire to draw air. Fire making skills are not hard to learn but it does require a little practice, and perhaps the right guidance, to find the right balance in configuring your fuel. We’ll discuss this more later on.

Now let’s take a look at some ignition sources. First we need to understand that ignition can take place in several ways. A chemical reaction between two or more components can result in combustion such as a pile of oily rags or the combination two raw chemicals.

Mechanical ignition can be accomplished in many ways. Most mechanical methods involve some sort of friction until a temperature of 750 degrees or more is reached causing the materials to ignite. Other methods include an electrical spark, using magnification to concentrate sunlight on a small point, striking two objects together and traditional methods like matches or a lighter. Matches combine friction and chemical whereas a lighter uses a combination of a flint and striker. The instrument that plumbers use to ignite their torches works on the same basis as butane lighters. Below are some examples grouped according to method.


  • Magnifying glass
  • Flashlight reflector
  • Bottle or bag of Water
  • Coke can


  • 9V battery
  • Car Battery
  • Battery & fishhook
  • Automobile cigarette lighter
  • Light bulb filament

Mechanical spark

  • Flint & steel
  • Ferrocerium Rod & Knife or metal scraper


  • Fire plow
  • Bamboo fire saw
  • Spindle
  • Crooked stick
  • Bow drill


  • Potassium Permanganate & glycerin


  • Fire piston


  • Matches
  • Bic lighter



Ok, now we understand the fire triangle and a few ways to ignite a fire and keep it going, but we need to also take a look at what is called a “Fire Lay” or ways to actually build or construct a fire depending on the purpose and the materials at hand.

Here are some basic configurations for Fire Lays:



The top left illustration is the Tee Pee fire and is the most common method for starting a fire. If you will look closely at the Log Cabin fire lay illustration right below the Tee Pee illustration, you will notice that it is constructed around a Tee Pee fire lay.

Since heat rises, the Tee Pee lay makes it easy to get a lot of wood going at once. The Star configuration is basically a flattened Tee Pee and allows you to place fairly long logs onto an established fire and simply push them into the center as the wood is consumed.

The Long fire is used to keep a tent warm all night in conjunction with a reflector mechanism.

The Dakota fire is considered a “stealth” fire since it is basically underground and is harder to detect from a distance even at night.

The Pyramid fire is a self feeding fire with larger fuel at the bottom so as the fire burns down it has more and more fuel to burn.

The Vee (not shown) is a long fire with one end squeezed together to form a “V”. This makes it easy to cook on the smaller end of the “V” shape by raking hot coals toward that end and using the two side logs to support your frying pan or cooking pot. The same is true of the Tee fire lay and the Keyhole fire lay by using one area for fire and the other for coals and cooking.

Although all fires can be considered warming fires and you can cook on all of them, these fire lays all have a specific purpose as far as functionality. Some are better for cooking, some for signaling, and others for keeping you warm all night.

If you want an all night fire that you do not have to wake up and feed every 30 minutes, you need to use a variation of the Pyramid fire. Stack everything close together so that the space between your wood limits the amount of air that the fire can draw from underneath. This allows the wood to still be consumed but at a slower rate and gives you a longer burn time. Graduate the size of wood as you pile things up just as you would with a pyramid fire but because everything is close together you build a small fire on top. The fire will gradually burn down to the bottom logs and provide you with a nice bed of coals in the morning that can easily be turned into a roaring fire in short order.

Fires can be used to boil and purify water. If you have no container, one can be fashioned out of available materials, hat, tarp, coal burned log, dry bag, etc. Find a few rocks but not from a creak or other water source. Heating the rocks will expand any air bubbles or moisture and may cause the rocks to explode. Place them in the fire for about 10 minutes and then add them to your improvised container one at a time until the water is brought to a roiling boil. It is then safe to drink.

I mentioned a coal burned container. Natives have been making containers for hundreds of years by using coals to gradually burn down into and scrape out the inside of a section of log and sometimes even whole canoes. Obviously this takes time but if you know how, it could mean the difference in whether or not you have clean water to drink.

The most important aspect of knowing how to make fire in a survival situation is the mental lift and satisfaction you get from knowing you can depend on your skills. A fire can also provide security as a deterrent from predatory animals. A positive mental attitude is a must, especially for prolonged periods, if you are going to make it out alive.

I hope by now you have a solid understanding of all the basic aspects of fire. Now that you know how, above all, practice your fire-making skills often until you are confident you can depend on them.


Written by: David Ellis aka Pointman

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