The Urban Survivalists Guide to Fire Making

Fire has always been an essential element in human survival. It has a million and one uses and being able to make it will be an essential skill during an urban catastrophe. Here are a few things that can be done with fire:

  • Providing warmth and comfort
  • Cooking and preserving food
  • Purifying water
  • Sterilizing equipment and clothing
  • Creating smoke to signal others of your location
  • To psychologically boost and improve morale
  • Producing tools and weapons
  • Drying equipment
  • Creating light to see in the dark
  • Used as a weapon against looters and animals
  • Burning down enemy shelters

Fire Making Guide

Fire isn’t always a good thing though and it can cause a few unwanted problems. It can alert looters and enemies to your location by the smoke and light it produces. If used carelessly it can burn down your shelter or destroy your equipment. It can also cause carbon monoxide poisoning if used in a shelter. Always take these drawbacks into consideration when deciding to make a fire.

The Science behind Fire
It will help to know the science behind fire in order to use it effectively. Knowing the physics of fire will make you a better fire builder and put you ahead of the rest. We all know the basics of fire but having that extra edge will prove invaluable.

Fire can also be known as combustion and it’s essentially the process of rapid oxidation at a high temperature. This results in the release of hot gases, light, and invisible forms of radiated energy. Scientifically speaking, fire works like this:

  1. Fuel and oxygen are put together in the same place
  2. Heat is added (usually in the form of a flame or spark)
  3. The fuel and oxygen molecules gain energy and become unstable and active
  4. The energy in the molecules start to transfer to other molecules, creating a chain reaction
  5. The fuel looses electrons which are then gained by the oxygen molecules, this is what’s called oxidation
  6. The transfer of electrons will create heat, the heat perpetuates the oxidation reaction
  7. The reaction becomes self-sustaining
  8. You now have fire!

Now that the fire is started, it will continue burning until:

  • Either the fuel or oxygen has been depleted or removed
  • The temperature of the materials fall below the ignition temperature

The Fire Tetrahedron
The fire tetrahedron is essentially an updated version of the fire triangle. Understanding it can be very helpful in maintaining and building good fire. Fire as previously mentioned is a basic and integral aspect of survival. Having the skills to create a fire anytime and anywhere greatly increases your chances of survival. We now know that fire requires fuel, oxygen, heat and combustion (or oxidization). These four basic elements of fire are called the fire tetrahedron.

Fire Tetrahedron

The four sided pyramid shaped tetrahedron model was developed to help illustrate how these four elements are essential to fire. Remove a single element from the fire tetrahedron and the fire won’t start, or it will be stop if already burning. The exact balance of these four elements is dependent on fuel sources, altitude, oxygen supply and many other factors. Depending on circumstances you may need to compensate with extra fuel or oxygen to keep the fire going. Regardless of proportions though, they must all by present for the fire to exist.

  • Fuel: In order to start and maintain a fire you’ll require an adequate fuel source. The energy stored in fuel combusts, which releases that energy in the form of heat, light, and different forms of radiation energy. Removing or running out of the fuel will break the fire tetrahedron model and stop the process of combustion.
  • Heat: Heat is essential to initially starting a fire and can be applied either in the form of a flame or spark. The temperature of the heat source must be great enough to raise the fuel to its ignition temperature. Heat is continually needed to keep the combustion reaction going but is usually supplied by the fire itself. If the temperature falls below the ignition point of the fuel the fire will stop.
  • Oxygen: Oxygen as we all know is that important invisible gas essential to life. It’s also essential to sustaining a fire. The oxygen is consumed by the fire and must constantly be replaced to keep the reaction going.
  • Sustained Chemical Reaction: Fire is essentially a chemical reaction that produces heat, light and carbon monoxide as its byproducts. If for any reason this chemical reaction stops…The fire tetrahedron is broken and the fire will stop.

Making a Fire
Now that we understand the science behind fire, we’ll need to learn how to acquire proper fuel, how to supply the fire with oxygen and we’ll need the know-how to create an adequate heat source. Building a fire is a step process and it goes like this:

  • Gather the fuel
  • Find an effective location
  • Build up an effective formation with the fuel source
  • Ignite the fire

Fire Safety
As previously mentioned, fire can be dangerous. The fire should always be monitored by someone and should always be completely snuffed out before leaving it. If left unchecked, a fire can cause severe damage and can cause the events listed below:

  • Alert looters to your location by the smoke or light
  • Kill through carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Damage equipment and goods
  • Cause severe burns and injuries

You need three types of fuels to build a fire:

  • Tinder: any dry material that will ignite at a low temperature. A spark should be able to ignite the material. This material will start the fire.
  • Kindling: any dry material that is easily combustible, you’ll add this to the burning tinder. This material should be dry enough to burn rapidly. Kindling is used to increase the fires overall temperature to ignite the less combustible main fuel.
  • Main Fuel: is any material that will burn slowly once ignited. You’ll use this to keep the fire going.

Tinder is any dry material that ignites with little heat. Charred cloth, cotton and tissue paper will work perfectly as tinder since even a spark should be able to ignite it. The tinder must be 100% dry and should be abundant enough to ignite the kindling. Some other examples of tinder include:

  • Tree bark (birch is perfect)
  • Dry plants and grasses
  • Lint (hint: drying machine!)
  • Wood shavings
  • Paper (shred into smaller pieces)
  • Dry pine needles
  • Cushioning (found in stuffed animals, pillows, car seats, etc.)

The post apocalyptic environment will be abundant with things to burn. So use your imagination and think outside the box. If for any reason you have trouble igniting tinder you can always add alcohol, gasoline or some other form of combustible to the mix. Alcohol can be found in perfume, most deodorant sprays and cologne bottles. You can also use any hard liquor with a 40% and over alcohol content.

The role of tinder is to transfer enough heat to ignite the kindling. Tinder has to be so easily ignitable that even a spark will set it off. There has to be enough tinder to set the kindling on fire.

The main purpose of kindling is to produce a large amount of heat to set the main fuel on fire. This can be achieved by selecting dry materials that burn rapidly. Materials should be selected with a high surface to volume ratio (thin pieces of wood), they will work best. The burning kindling must produce enough heat to ignite the main fuel. Sources of tinder include:

  • Dry twigs and branches
  • Thin wood pieces
  • Cardboard
  • Wooden shingles and siding
  • Broken down furniture
  • Wood Flooring
  • Wood Fences

An urban environment as previously mentioned is abundant with material to burn and the abandoned houses after a disaster will be store houses for fuel. An Axe is essential since it will be needed for cutting larger pieces of wood down to smaller pieces.  Another essential tool is a crowbar in order to tear down and rip apart wooden structures.

Main Fuel
The main fuel is any material that will burn slowly and steadily for an extended period of time. The main fuel should consist of large and heavy pieces of flammable material. Once you have the main fuel burning well, you can leave it be and add fuel periodically. Sources of the main fuel can include:

  • Dry wood (found in the structure of houses and buildings)
  • Peat
  • Animal dung
  • Coal
  • Rubber tires (produces toxic fumes, don’t use it for cooking)
  • Furniture

Most materials found in an urban environment have been treated with toxic chemicals that will be released during combustion so stay out of the smoke when possible. Only cook over a fire if it’s burning a clean fuel.

Green and wet fuel is burnable if the fire is strong and hot. The heat from the fire will be enough to dry and ignite the wet material. Green, wet wood has the advantage of burning slower which is great if you want a fire to last for a long period of time.

Large thick pieces of wood are ideal since they will last much longer and give a sustained heat and light. Burning large pieces will also supply you with hot coals which can be used for roasting and cooking. Rather than wasting time and energy to cut large logs, simply place them on the fire and allow it to burn slowly.

Gathering Firewood and Fuel
Gathering firewood is time consuming and requires a lot of effort. If you plan on using fire as your main source of energy, I suggest stockpiling dry lumber now so you have a buffer for when shit hits the fan. Fire requires a lot more fuel then most people expect and you’re more then likely to under predict the amount of fuel you’ll need. As a simple guide line, estimate the amount of fuel you’ll need and triple it. Always get more fuel then you expect to use, some fires burn faster then others and it’s impossible to truly gauge how much you’ll really need.

While scavenging the neighborhood and gathering supplies, take special note to locations abundant in fuel sources. Lumber stores, densely packed residential streets and forested areas are ideal locations to gather fuel and dry firewood. Here’s a list of items you’ll want to bring along when collecting firewood:

  • Crowbar: The ultimate urban survival tool. You’ll need it to rip the houses apart and extract the wood from the floors, walls, and supports.
  • Wheelbarrow: Any wheeled platform will do and it will come in handy when transporting the goods back to your shelter.
  • Construction gloves: Safety first! There won’t be anyone to stitch you up when shit hits the fan. The lumber you extract from houses will most likely be riddled with nails and slivers.
  • Rope: you’ll most likely be collecting long thin pieces of wood. A rope tied around a large bundle will hold it all together during transport.

Site Selection and Preparation
Choosing a good location is critically important for the efficiency and safety of the fire. This location should have natural barriers surrounding the fire to prevent detection by gangs, looters and scavengers. Clear the surrounding area of all combustible materials to prevent the fire from spreading. Before building a fire you’ll want to keep several things in mind:

  • What’s the surrounding terrain and climate?
  • How much fuel do you have available?
  • Do you even need a fire?
  • Will having a fire pose a security risk?
  • Can you find a dry area, protected from the wind?
  • Where will the fire be in relation to your shelter?
  • Is there a supply of wood and fuel available in the surrounding area?
  • If you live in a building, can you use the roof or balcony?

Traditionally in a wilderness survival situation, you’d place large stones around the fire or dig a small pit for the fire to be placed in. This can still be done in an urban environment but there are better, smarter alternatives. You can use bricks, blocks of cement, steel oil drums, sinks, tubs and much more. Survival is all about improvisation and adaptation so use your imagination! If you decide to be boring and use rocks for a fire pit, avoid using wet, porous rocks as they have a tendency to explode when heated up.

Of all the items and you can use to make a fire pit, the inside of a drying machine is definitely the best. It’s perforated with holes (for oxygen) and it’s large enough to contain a strong fire. The flat top is perfect for laying skewers and other cooking devices across. You can find an abundance of drying machines at a local junkyard and if shit really hit the fan… your own drying machine will do.

Keep the Fire Small
Bigger isn’t always better, especially when it comes to fire. A large fire will consume your fuel and lumber at a much faster rate and the heat it produces will just be wasted. Keep the fire no higher then 2 feet and keep a small base. A small fire will provide enough heat for cooking and keeping everyone warm. The gathering of firewood is time consuming and energy draining, so avoid it and conserve your energy by keeping the fire small.

Setting up the Fire
There are quite a few methods to build a fire but they all generally follow the same principle. Tinder is placed under a loosely spaced pile of kindling. The kindling must be stacked close enough to combust from the tinder but spaced apart enough for oxygen to get through. Once the kindling has set on fire, add larger and larger pieces of fire wood until the fire reaches the desired size.

There are several methods for laying the initial fire wood and the method you choose really comes down to what you feel most comfortable with. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages but they’re all essentially the same. There are many methods but

I’m only going to explain the most effective and efficient ones. These methods are designed to take full advantage of how fire burns by increasing air flow and heat transfer. Get familiar with these methods and try them out.

Log Cabin
This is one of the most popular and easy methods to start a fire. It is achieved by simply laying the sticks or logs in a log cabin style over the burning kindling. Each layer of sticks is perpendicular to the layer underneath. This method has the advantage of being able to stack a lot of fuel right away without smothering the fire, it will also collapse and fall in a predictable and safe manner.

Exactly as the name implies, stack the wood in a tepee like structure over the burning tinder and kindling. This formation creates a chimney like structure that will suck oxygen from the bottom and accelerate the burning process. The burning fire wood will predictably fall inwards as it burns.

Dakota Fire Hole
This method is perfect if you need to stay invisible and keep your location concealed. The Dakota fire hole will limit the amount of smoke produced and the flame will be kept underground thereby preventing the light from being spotted. You can make a Dakota fire hole by following these steps:

  • Dig a hole in the ground, about a foot across and 2 feet down.
  • Dig in such a way that the hole is wider on the bottom then the top.
  • Dig a smaller hole upwind and about a foot away from the larger hole. This smaller hole should be about 6 inches in diameter and must connect with the base of the larger hole.

The result should essentially be a U-shape tunnel in the ground. Air is sucked into the smaller hole feeding the small fire in the larger hole. Of all the fire laying methods the Dakota fire hole is the most complicated, practice making a few in peace time while you can.

Methods to Light a Fire
Being able to light a fire is so essential that it’s recommended you have at least 3 different fire starting devices in your survival kit. These ignition sources can be:

  • Waterproof matches
  • Lighter
  • Magnesium fire starter
  • Convex lens, binoculars, telescopic lens, Magnifying glass
  • 9volt battery and steel wool
  • flint spark lighter

Eventually over time these ignition devices will wear out and run out so you can’t solely rely on them. They are great to start a fire quickly but you’ll be useless without them. Learning the primitive methods of fire starting will be essential in a long term disaster situation. The primitive methods aren’t easy… but they’ll be essential.

Primitive Methods
These methods were used by our ancestors hundreds and thousands of years ago. With the proper know-how these methods can be used almost anywhere, including an urban environment. Primitive fire building methods require a lot practice to work and they can be quite tiresome, even the experts have a tough time using these methods so don’t expect this to be easy.

This method is the easiest of the primitive methods… and luckily flint is extremely abundant! Lighters use a tiny piece of flint to ignite the gases. Just use an empty lighter to create the sparks needed to ignite the tinder. Not exactly primitive but oh well. Aside from lighters, flint is found in most geographical areas and they’re easy to distinguish. Flint almost has a glossy appearance and is similar to quarts. To use a flint stone, strike a piece of steel with a sharp edge of the stone. Easier said then done… but it works

Fire Plow
The fire plow uses friction to create heat and ignite the tinder. This is achieved by rubbing a hardwood stick or shaft against a block soft wood (thick bark works great). Cut a straight groove in the block of soft wood and rub the blunt tip of the shaft back and forth along the groove. The rubbing or “plowing” action will push tiny particles of wood fibers to one end of the block. The harder you push down while moving back and forth, the more heat will be produced. This is not an easy process and it will require rigorous stroking to ignite the wood particles.

Bow and Drill
The technique is simple in concept, but requires a lot of effort and persistence to work. This method requires the following items:

  • Socket: a stone, piece of hardwood, bottle lid or bottle cap with a concave curve or slot in it. It should be easy to hold as you’ll need it to hold the drill in place as you apply a downward pressure on it.
  • Drill: a straight, hard stick that’s about half an inch in diameter and about a foot long. The top end should be round to easily spin in the notch. The bottom end should be blunt and course in order to produce more friction and heat.
  • Fire board: A small board of wood about an inch thick and 3 inches wide. You’ll need to cut a small depression about 2 centimeters near the edge of on side. On the opposite side make a V-shaped cut from the edge of the board to the depression.
  • Bow: a strong but bendable, fresh green stick about an inch in diameter with a bowstring tied to both ends without slack. Just as the name implies, it should look like a bow and there should be a slight bend in the bow, the bow will keep the string taught and straight.

Using the bow and drill will take some practice so expect some frustrations. To use the bow and drill follow these steps:

  1. Set up and prepare the fire wood.
  2. Take a small amount of tinder and place it under the V-shaped cut.
  3. Keep the fireboard steady by placing your foot on it.
  4. Loop the bowstring around the drill.
  5. Place the rough end of the drill in the depression that was precut in the fire board.
  6. Hold the drill in position by placing socket over it using your free hand.
  7. Apply pressure to the drill and use a sawing motion to move the bow back and forth. This should spin the drill.
  8. Apply downward pressure and keep the drill spinning. Let the temperature build up by spinning the drill faster and faster and applying more pressure.
  9. Keep spinning until the tinder is ignited.

If you follow the steps above you’ll end up grinding a hot black powder into the tinder, causing some embers and smoke to form. Blow gently on the tinder until a flame ignites.

Practice Makes Perfect
The skill and know-how required to make fire requires practice and lots of it. Many city dwellers are entirely clueless when it comes to fire and these people will be left in the dark when shit hits the fan. Practice building fires when you can, the experience will be highly useful during an emergency survival situation.