Building a fire with natural materials: an educational guide for teachers and anyone working with children and young people.

Article by Rachel Street 22 November 2014

Including what you’ll need, how to start a fire the easy way and how to do it safely.

Let’s start off with the basic science of the fire triangle.  For a fire you’re going to need heat, fuel and oxygen.  Here’s how we recommend you go about this.

HEAT:  There are many safe sources of heat.  If you’ve not tried it before, why not introduce your group to a fire striker?  Children of 8+ should be able to use them successfully and you’ll be showing them how to light a fire from a spark – teaching them a new skill and building confidence in the process.  If you haven’t used one yourself, have a practice first to get to grips with the tool and learn how to use it safely.  You’ll find a cotton wool ball will light easiest from a spark.

 Firelighter

 

FUEL:  A supply of cotton wool balls, dry hay and thin dry sticks which, although not essential, will help you light the fire successfully.   Although these are processed tinders, they’re still natural materials.

OXYGEN:  Obviously, this is in plentiful supply, but consider the location of your firepit.  If your fire is too sheltered from the wind it may not burn well.  If you’re going to add oxygen yourself by blowing, make sure your head is to the side of the fire and blow gently at first, making sure you don’t make yourself out of breath or dizzy.

Fire safety

With the fire triangle addressed, be sure to think about fire safety.  The following items are essential if you’re organising an activity with a group which involves a small educational fire:

  • Fire blanketFire Safety Items
  • Heatproof gloves or gauntlets
  • Clean emergency water supply
  • Burns first aid kit.

Supplies of these items can be obtained from several places including Muddy Faces.

 

Collecting materials and lighting the fire

  • Ask children to collect tinder (dry grasses, very dry leaves, birch bark from the floor, very fine twigs, pine needles or open pine cones) to make an apple sized tinder bundle.
  • Ask children to collect their kindling.  Small twigs are best as it’s the thickness not the length that counts! Separate them into piles of different sizes - very fine twigs (a few mm diameter, size of a toothpick), slightly larger twigs (diameter of a pencil), and bigger twigs (approx diameter of adult thumb).

Types Of Kindling 

  • Explain that those that make a nice snapping sound when you break them are drier, and good for firelighting, whereas if they bend, then they’re not very dry and not good for firelighting.  Bone dry wood and small twigs make less smoke, and standing dead wood is better than wood from the ground.
  • Collect/ bring some fuel – you’ll need a few larger diameter pieces of dry wood, or you can bring your own supply of charcoal, dry sticks or small split logs.

Starting the fire

  • Lay a few slightly larger pieces of wood in the base of the firepit to create a dry platform and keep the tinder off the floor.
  • Ignite your tinder with a spark from your fire striker.  Then add your finest tinder, e.g. paper thin bark, pine needles, dry grass, dry (dead) nettles, hay, super thin twigs.
  • Think of your tinder and sizes of kindling as gears in a car.  You need to go up all the gears in order.  If you skip a gear, you’re in danger of not having enough power and your fire faltering.  Gradually add larger sized tinder and kindling. As one piece lights, add another - too much too soon can suffocate the fire of oxygen and put it out.
  • When you’re ready to put small twigs on, add them in a shape somewhere between an ‘X’ and a ‘V’.  You need the twigs to cross over each other so it’s more than a ‘V’, but you need the bottom half longer than the top, so not quite an ‘X’.

X And V Fires

 

  • It’s important to add sticks (fuel) in a controlled and precise way.  Teach your group new skills and knowledge by showing them how to make a fire burn well and explaining the purpose of a particular fire.  For example, the above method is best for getting a fire started, ‘Grid fires’ are good for cooking and ‘long fires’ are great for keeping warm overnight. 

Handy Hints

  • Ensure you’re low and to the side of the fire and (if you can) upwind to avoid rising sparks, smoke and heat.
  • If you remove one of the three elements (heat, oxygen, fuel) you’ll put out the fire.
  • The secret is to practise this skill a few times first before you try it with a group!!
  • You don’t need to light it in front of a group until you gain confidence.  Until then you can organise the activities so that children are engaged doing something else with your helpers whilst you light the fire, or light it before the group arrives.

Extinguishing the fire

  • If you’ve planned well, your fire should be burning down by the time your activities are finished.  To extinguish it completely, douse your fire with water, starting from the outside and moving in.  It’s important to cool down the whole area and not just put the fire out.  To do this, dig out and turn the firepit area, adding more water until the ground is cool again.  Make sure everything (including soil, rocks and logs) is cool to touch before you leave.
  • When you’re sure it’s cool enough, fill the pit in again with the soil that you dug out, replacing any turf back on top.  Hide any blackened wood or part-burnt coals in undergrowth or take them away with you.  Make sure you carefully follow all the steps above before you do this, to make sure they don’t cause another fire!
  • Don’t pour water on to hot stones or rocks as there’s a risk they can explode.
  • If the ground is still hot to touch, then you shouldn’t leave it as it may still re-ignite.

Have Fun

Fire can be a magical experience for a child or young person.  It will stimulate their senses by letting them feel its warmth, watch the flames dance and, of course, its rich smell.  Humans have a natural appreciation for fire and, as a skill, it separates us from all other living animals.  Enjoy the amazing experience of creating one with your group and capture their imaginations and enthusiasm.

For some more tips on creating your fire pit, you can also read my other article on fire-building with young people, which also gives advice on toasting marshmallows.

 



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