Learning how to build a fire and maintain it for heat, light and cooking is an essential prepping skill, and often one of the first primitive or austere environment tasks that a beginning prepper will learn, often times right after establishing their three-day supply cache.
There are all kinds of ways to create a fire, both indoors and out, but a sometimes neglected part of a prepper’s education, and being a proper fire keeper is managing and mitigating the inherent risk of creating a fire in the first place.
Fire is one of mankind’s oldest tools, and was absolutely essential for helping us master the harsh and unforgiving environment around us.
Nevertheless, it remains a notoriously fickle servant, prone to doing what it wants, when it wants unless fastidiously tended to and unceasingly watched.
A fire that is allowed to go out of control for even a few moments can result in death and untold destruction. Even a small fire that is not watched can create a chain reaction blaze that can grow into a total conflagration capable of immolating forest, field and city alike.
It is up to all of us to know what we are doing, understand the risks and minimize the potential for disaster before we ever put spark or coal to tinder.
In today’s article I will help you understand the risk factors inherent to building a fire inside a building or out, as well as tips and procedures to do so safely in any conditions.
The Consequences of Complacency
It is hard to say just how bad the consequences can get when a fire gets out of control. In a best-case scenario it can result in property damage, loss of equipment or comparatively mild injury.
In a worst-case scenario hundreds of thousands or millions of acres of wildland can be burned, lives lost, and entire neighborhoods, even towns and parts of cities, could be burned to the ground. Sound implausible? Not at all.
In the United States alone there are over 350,000 house fires each year, typically resulting from a mishap in the kitchen, or an accident occurring due to an ill-maintained chimney.
All together these fires caused thousands of deaths, tens upon tens of thousands of injuries and untold billions of dollars in property damage both to structures and possessions.
House fires occur almost daily, and once they progress past the initial phase are virtually impossible to stop before total loss of the house and, sadly, the occupants occurs. These are entirely commonplace and extremely dangerous events.
Even out of doors fire continues to prove that it will not be mastered. Every single year in the United States an average of 71,000 wildfires burn 6.9 million acres (source). If that sounds shocking, consider that wildfires are occurring more and more frequently in the 2000’s compared to the 1990s.
Since the year 2000, almost two hundred of these wildfires have been proper conflagrations; catastrophic wildfires that rage destructively and completely out of control, changing the landscapes that they affect for years to come.
Sadly, wildfires of all types are typically caused by human activities, with fully 85% resulting from unattended campfires, attempted controlled burning of debris and trash, equipment malfunction and even carelessly discarded cigarette butts.
The past few years have seen especially dangerous and destructive wildfires of biblical intensity rage across much of the United States and Australia, some being the result of accident and others being the result of arson. If that doesn’t get you to wake up and buff up your fire safety procedures, nothing will.
Proper Fire Procedure is Essential
Correct and safe management of fire is not just a mundane activity to ensure you don’t start the next wildfire or burn your own house down, no these are certainly worthy reasons.
Think of it as another step in your essential preparations, since it would be a shame to live through the initial phases of any SHTF event only to have all of your time, effort and a material that you accumulated for the purpose go literally up in smoke.
Neither complacency nor ignorance is an excuse: You have taken the time to become confident in so many different things as a prepper, why would you not want to become confident when it comes to fire safety indoors or out?
Sure, I’ll agree that it is not as fun or exciting as learning a new skill that you can really sink your teeth into or show off on your social media account, but believe me there is nothing better when it comes to showing off your competency then not setting yourself or your possessions on fire.
In the following sections we will be going over safety tips and procedures to help you mitigate risk whenever you are setting both indoor and outdoor fires.
Building and tending a fire indoors is much the same as it is outdoors, only now you will have the added complications of hazardous gas buildup, increased secondary fire hazard and, of course, the looming threat of burning your shelter down entirely. Avoid these fates with the tips and procedures below!
Beware Carbon Monoxide Buildup!
The buildup of carbon monoxide is always a risk whenever any combustible material is being burned inside a structure it does not have adequate ventilation. Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and tasteless, and can quickly result in incapacitation and death if it builds up in your body.
This is especially dangerous when sleeping, because a burning fire that is not venting properly to the outside air can rapidly result in lethal levels of CO buildup completely unknown to the hapless sleepers.
Understanding and dealing with carbon monoxide must be your top priority whenever you are building a fire in an enclosed space.
You must understand and ensure that correct ventilation in the form of a proper chimney (for a fireplace) or flue pipe (for a stove) running outside the structure is installed, clear and properly operational.
If you have access to one, a carbon monoxide detector that is powered and has been tested is essential, especially for long-term burning indoors.
Lastly, become familiar with the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, which may be the only warning you have that something is wrong.
Be wary if going to sleep with a fire burning or tending a fire after you have been drinking, as carbon monoxide poisoning can result in death before you have a chance to react in those circumstances.
Headache, confusion, weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting are all signs of carbon monoxide poisoning and should be acted upon immediately if no other explanation exists for what is causing it, especially when multiple people in the same house report the onset of the same symptoms.
Ensure Chimney or Flue Pipe is Clear and Functional
One of the single biggest causes of fires in any structure is an improperly maintained, malfunctioning, or otherwise defective chimney or flue pipe leading out of the house from the fireplace or the stove respectively.
All kinds of things can go wrong with these seemingly simple systems that result in a raging structure fire you will have little hope of extinguishing before it is too late.
One of the single biggest problems with either chimneys or flue pipes is the buildup of creosote within them.
Creosote is a flammable material deposited by the passage of smoke and builds up over time, just waiting to catch a hot spark before brewing up into a raging blaze inside the chimney or the flue. This fire will often destructively breach it before spreading to the rest of the house.
Another issue caused by lack of maintenance is cracks, gaps, holes and other breaches of structural integrity that will allow heat or even errant sparks out of the protective envelope and into contact with other flammable materials making up the structure.
Lastly, and this one is notoriously well-known for some living in colder climates, is that animals of all kinds but especially birds love to nest in chimneys and in flue pipes for warmth and protection.
These animal nests are obviously flammable and a fire hazard unto themselves but they also serve to back up the hot gases and combustion byproducts from a burning fireplace or stove and can result in rapid and dangerous buildup of CO gas as described above.
The best way to keep critters out of your chimney is by keeping a proper chimney or flue cap in place.
The way to deal with chimney and flue problems is to have them regularly maintained and inspected by professional chimney sweeps or flue installers.
If you don’t have access to these personnel for whatever reason, it would definitely pay to learn the ins-and-outs of these procedures yourselves so you can at least perform a rudimentary maintenance with what tools you have on hand.
Always Use Suitable Fuel
In a proper emergency, anything that can burn will provide both heat and light, and that might be enough to get you out of a potentially life-threatening situation.
But so long as you have a choice, and have access to the appropriate materials, you should always try to burn high-quality fuel when tending a fire indoors.
Generally, this means well seasoned hardwood, not wood that is poorly seasoned or softwoods since they will generate more smoke and more smoke means more problems when indoors.
It is fairly common to hear people advocating for the burning of paper, cloth and even rubber in survival situations and while all of these materials will burn they will not burn cleanly or well and that can make your time indoors by the fire miserable or even dangerous.
Additionally these materials can burn unpredictably, spit sparks or even hot, smoldering particles that create secondary fire hazards that might in turn potentially be the initial source of ignition for a chimney or flue fire.
Always use high quality firewood or synthetic chimney logs if you have access to them when burning indoors and save any other material for emergency use only!
Avoid Accelerant Use Indoors
Chances are most of the readership have that one family member, we will call him Uncle Tim, who always uses entirely too much accelerant when it is time to get the grill going at the family barbecue, kick off the Independence Day bonfire with a fwoosh (if not a bang) and relishes the opportunity to get any fire going right-this-second-and-I-mean-now.
This is typically accomplished with a liberal application of lighter fluid, though some intrepid Uncle Tims will resort to gasoline or kerosene to do the same thing.
Well, there is more than one way to skin a cat and for those people who just suck at starting and tending fires or who do not want to risk the embarrassment of a first match failure to light a squirt of accelerant will indeed get the party started quicker. This is fine, if riskier than it needs to be outdoors but is definitely a bad idea indoors.
Accelerant molecules that mix with the air create explosive vapors that are the stuff of YouTube legend but definitely a bad, bad idea if you are trying to get a fire going indoors no matter how desperate you are to ward off the cold or get dinner started.
Without a suitably wide area to provide you room to maneuver as well as a safe standoff from other flammable materials using accelerant indoor, is absolutely asking for trouble and you should never do it. It is entirely too easy to set the drapes, walls and even ceiling on fire with a simple misapplication of accelerant.
Learning how to properly construct and then tend a fire using tinder, kindling and the correct fuel in the proper configuration will take you much farther than any bottle of Zippo fluid.
Douse Ashes Properly When Fire is Out
An altogether too common oversight when people are tending fires indoors is to ignore the ashes when the fire is out, leaving them to hopefully cool in the stove or in the fireplace. After all, contained as they are inside a solid brick, stone or iron vessel what harm can they cause? As it turns out, plenty.
As with any fire out of doors, the proper extinguishing of the fire and dealing with the remnants is essential for safety when dealing with fire inside a structure. Once the fire has gone down from lack of fuel or deliberate extinguishment walking away from the ashes is a recipe for disaster and has resulted in countless housefires.
It turns out there might yet be a spark in those ashes that is biding its time until it can reignite, or enough heat might remain to ignite something that comes into incidental contact with it. Both are bad outcomes, and practically make very little difference.
The key to avoiding this unhappy outcome is to completely extinguish the fire by turning over the ashes and other remains to root out any lingering sparks before smothering it completely with sodium bicarbonate.
Once you are reasonably certain that the ashes are well and truly cool enough you should scoop them out of the fireplace or the stove using a small shovel for the purpose before dumping them into a metal, fireproof container.
If you are retiring for the night or leaving the house, take your ashes outside and completely submerge them in water for certainty. Only then can you be sure that you and the structure are safe.
Keep a Proper Fire Extinguisher Handy
For structure fires, the only thing that will give an occupant a chance when a controlled fire goes distinctly out of control is a fire extinguisher. You can forget trying to wrangle a bowl of water or dragging a garden hose inside.
If you have a good, working fire extinguisher close at hand and ready to go there is a chance to put out the offending fire before it engulfs the house, or potentially even before it causes serious damage.
But not all fire extinguishers are up to the task. The good news is that getting the right kind is easy as they are commonly available. Generally, for household use you want an ABC-rated fire extinguisher in the largest size that is still reasonably easy for you to wield and carry.
An ABC extinguisher is capable of handling all kinds of typical structural fires, be they solid, liquid or electrical- basically everything except flammable metals! Hopefully you don’t have any in your home at any rate!
When you place a fire extinguisher, you want it near a probable source of the fire but not right next to it; the reason being you don’t want the fire that gets out of control to engulf it and render it unavailable just when you need it most.
Somewhere close by that is still safe is ideal. You have only seconds to act when a fire breaks its bounds and less than two minutes before your house is fully ablaze.
Compared to indoors, tending to a fire in an outdoor setting might seem like an easy job with less worry and consequences, but you must not think that!
A moment’s inattention or neglect of proper procedures and protocol can result in you being injured or even the entire county burning down. There is likely to be enough on fire in the middle of a SHTF situation without you contributing to it! Prevent that from happening with the tips below.
Beware Dry Conditions
One of the first dangerous conditions you probably learned about when learning to make and manage fire in the outdoors was the hazard posed by extremely dry conditions.
The bane of fireworks displays and shooting ranges everywhere, as you might expect dry conditions can enable even the tiniest sparks to find life on the ground well away from the fire and create a new blaze all its own.
When grasses, leaves, twigs and other detritus and in some cases even living plants become dry from a prolonged lack of rainfall, conditions are ideal for wildfires.
Obviously you might not have any say and what the conditions will be like in the middle of an emergency when you really need a fire going in the outdoors, but if you are building a fire in very dry conditions you will have to double your caution and be extra alert to any errant sparks and be absolutely certain that the fire is out before you leave sight of it when you are done.
More than anything else dry conditions are responsible for the outbreak of wildfires that can turn entire regions into smoky, blazing infernos.
Enclose Fire with Rocks
This is a classic technique but an essential one for managing a fire when outdoors. By circling the fire with rocks you will help to contain it, keeping it from spreading along the ground, and also give your fuel a solid abutment for building it into the correct shape.
If you fail to enclose the fire with rocks, you run the risk of the fire catching on grasses, leaves, twigs and other things that are always around the campsite and then spreading against your will.
Of course the fire can always spread via a spark or through convection if something is too near the flames, but everything that you do to reduce the possibility of an uncontrolled fire, even an incidental small one, the better the control you will be able to exercise over your campfire.
Failing to enclose the campfire with rocks is especially egregious at night or when you are preparing to sleep at any time, since it is unlikely that you will notice the fire creeping ever closer across the ground while you are huddled in your sleeping bag or tent until it is too late.
By the time you wake up, you are probably already well on your way to being burned… or worse.
Place Your Fuel Intelligently
It stands to reason that when you are settling in at camp and preparing to light your campfire that you will gather a good supply of fuel beforehand in the form of sticks, branches, driftwood, twigs and whatever else that is available in your area.
After all, you don’t want to be running around in the dark when the fire is getting low looking desperately for suitable fuel to pitch into the fire before it burns too low or goes out.
This is basic fieldcraft and a smart strategy for any camping excursion. But you must take care to locate your fuel intelligently in regards to the fire, not too close or too far away. The risk that your fuel source will catch from a spark or ember is just too great.
Likewise, don’t locate your fuel supply or any other materials that will catch fire and go up quickly, like the dry ground cover we have mentioned a couple of times previously.
It is definitely worth your while to emplace your fuel in a similar fashion to your fire; by clearing away ground cover, keeping it located away from the fire and also away from anything else that might catch fire, but not so far away that you have to rummage for it when it is time to feed your campfire.
Failing to intelligently sight your fuel could mean you have two blazing fires to deal with at once, or your campfire and a completely out of control wildfire at worst.
Beware Shifting or Gusting Winds
Everything you will do when setting up your campfire will be largely dependent upon the wind. You want to position your fire so that it has some cover from the wind, but also be cautious that it will not blow sparks or hot embers in the direction of anything that you do not want to burn (most specifically yourself and your tent or sleeping bag).
It can be a little trickier than you think if you have never done it before to correctly position your fire both for usefulness, safety and long life.
Where some preppers and campers go wrong, though, is in failing to reposition themselves or even their fire when it is required should the wind shift.
It might be the last thing you want to do when you are weary from a long day of trekking, but if the wind should shift in a direction that puts downwind materials at risk of catching fire, you should snuff the fire and try to move it if you are unable to shield it.
Also, be particularly cautious when winds are gusting as this is one of the single biggest hazards you can encounter when managing a fire out of doors.
Gusty winds have the power to launch flaming debris in the form of whole twigs or even branches well away from your fire, leaving them to smolder out of sight and out of mind until it is too late.
Never assume that just because the wind is blowing hard enough to pick up embers that it will fully snuff out said ember! Always be on your guard when conditions are gusty.
Use Accelerants Cautiously
We have already talked about the perils of accelerants with indoor fires, and though you have a little more leeway when using them in an outdoor fire you must still exercise maximum caution.
Contrary to the popular opinion, accelerants do have some use when starting a fire in particularly stubborn conditions. Maybe all you can find is lackluster fuel. Maybe things are a little bit damp or you just plain cannot get that fire going.
This is where a tiny shot of lighter fluid or some other accelerant can overcome these fire-starting speed bumps to get your campfire going good and hot in very short order.
Try not to fall on using accelerant as a crutch, however. The tendency is for people to put a little dab of accelerant on their fuel before trying to light it.
When it fails to light or does not have the desired effect they will put a little extra, and then a little bit more, and finally a little, tiny bit more before the whole thing goes up in a fireball that is far larger than they were anticipating or prepared for.
Now we have a serious problem. Presumably you are out in a remote location with no one else around, or at best a very few people around to help you.
Your would-be campfire has erupted in a fireball that has jumped the confines of the ring of stones you placed around it (you did place a ring of stones around it, right?) and likely set fire to at least a few things in a 360-degree radius, including perhaps yourself or your tent.
So now, with possibly yourself on fire, you have to put out several other, smaller fires thanks to your haphazard use of accelerant.
I’m not saying that you should never use accelerant when working up an outdoor fire, and it definitely has its place in your prepping tool box especially if you already carry some to refuel a lighter, lantern or some other similar device.
All I’m saying is that you must use extreme caution with it even when you are in the middle of nowhere and particularly when you don’t have anyone to back you up.
Keep a Bucket of Soil, Sand or Water Handy
Even when you were in an off-the-grid situation in the middle of an SHTF event, you want to keep some method of completely extinguishing and smothering the fire handy so you can be sure that it is completely doused and is unable to reignite on its own.
The classic method is a bucket of water, but since you might not have either a bucket or a water source that you are willing to waste on fire extinguishing handy, you can settle for some loose, moist dirt, sand and a tarp or other cloth capable of holding it like a bindle.
There are all kinds of reasons you might need to extinguish it quickly or in a hurry, not for nothing. If you need to pull up your tent pegs, pack in a flash and go, you definitely don’t want to leave a fire roaring behind you addressed “to whom it may concern”.
If the situation develops in such a way that stealth becomes a priority smothering a fire rapidly and with a minimum of additional smoke could become important. Whatever the case, even in the middle of a live event keep your field “fire extinguisher” handy.
Never Leave a Smoking Ash Pile Behind
Just like Smokey the Bear always taught us: Never, ever leave the smoldering remains of a fire behind. After your fire burns down or after you douse it, always make it a point to stir the ashes and embers, smother them or douse them again, and then stir them one more time.
Only when the remains of the fire have gone completely cold should you feel confident that you can leave it without any chance that it will reignite.
Failing to properly extinguish a campfire before abandoning it is a leading cause of wildfires.
Proper handling of a fire means strict and careful adherence to the tenets of safety and tending before and after lighting and after extinguishing it.
Fire is only ever a fickle servant, and is more than willing to turn on the complacent or the ignorant. You can court disaster, or make a bad situation worse by ignoring these safety protocols!
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.