How to Dominate Fire
Fire can be one of your best friends. Or one of your worst enemies. The difference is knowledge.
Fire needs three things: fuel, heat and air.
You need to never, never be in a room or shelter or car or any other enclosed space with an open flame or any other heat source that needs air to burn. Because one of the things that fire can give you besides a nice cozy warmth, is carbon monoxide poisoning from an incomplete burning of the fuel, which nearly always happens with conventional open-flame fires. Carbon monoxide takes the place of oxygen in your bloodstream and holds on like a pitbull. Breathe too much of it, and you will die, possibly even if you leave the area where you’ve been breathing it.
I begin with this harsh information, because many people perish each year from that simple scenario: enclosed space, unventilated heat source. Often, the open flame is a space heating stove fueled with kerosine. But it can also be a lantern that uses propane, or a hibachi using charcoal that doesn’t even seem to have a flame, or any number of sources that seem so friendly… until you put it in an unventilated space with people. In our society, most of us have little experience with fire, so the incidence of fatalities keep going up. But now that you start to understand the danger, you also begin to realize that it would be wise to learn how to take precautions so that you do not put yourself in a dangerous situation.
Why do you need a stove in an emergency? You can get Emergency Packs of food that do not require a stove.
The primary reason is so that you can boil water. You may desperately need to boil water to sterilize it for drinking, washing, or medical uses. You could have( or find) food that needs cooking to make it safe to eat. You may want it to make coffee. You could want an occasional warm meal. The list goes on….
Portable Gas Stoves
So buy a stove. My personal favorite is the all-time camping workhorse, a Coleman® type of gas stove with two burners. It’s sturdy; it’s built well; it will give good service for a long time. There are other makes that are as good or better, or worse. Check them out. I like one with a built-in spark mechanism because then you do not have to use a match or other outside source to light the burners.
Make certain that if you get any kind of gas stove that there are NO gas leaks from any part of the stove. If you want to do a basic check of the stove for leaks, use compressed air and run water over all the parts the gas goes through. Look for bubbles. Any bubbles, take it back. Dry off all the parts you ran water over so they do not rust or oxidize. Check your stove before each use, especially when it has been a while since it has been used. Please read carefully the WARNINGS Coleman® gives its users in this pdf and be sure to follow them, as well as any additional warnings from your stove’s maker.
With two burners you are pretty well set. You can boil water on one and cook on the other. Or perhaps a severe emergency situation will come up where you need lots of boiling sterile water as soon as possible. There is nothing that says you have to have only one stove. We have a backup, as usual, and a few spare parts.
The one great drawback to this easy fire source is the fact you will need fuel, lots of fuel. You must safely store enough propane (or other fuel; check your own stove’s manual) to make the stove worthwhile. What ‘worthwhile’ means is greatly up to you to define it. If you want to cook every meal and have enough left over to boil water when necessary, you will need more than if you store food that does not need cooking and don’t need hot water for washing pans.
The standard propane canisters have 16.4 ounces of fuel, which may give you one hour of use on one burner, depending how high you have it turned up. If the burner is turned down low, the propane will last a lot longer, but it may take longer to heat something. Or not. Depends on the configuration and efficiency of your own particular stove. So do some trial use of your stove and see for yourself. Take control, take responsibility, and reap the benefits of knowing how things will work in an emergency. That goes for so many things, not just the stove.
You can get larger or very large or huge propane tanks, if you want them. Just make sure you also get the right fittings so you can safely connect the propane source to your stove. The larger the container, the less cost per ounce of propane. But the larger total cash layout.
Benefits from choosing smaller canisters: they are easily transportable… can be purchased over time as you build up a stockpile of them to store safely… and they make a great barter commodity. I personally think a canister of propane is worth more than a stack of money in most emergency or disaster situations.
Another option is the ‘dual fuel’ Coleman® stove that burns not only the Coleman® brand fuel, but also can burn plain, ordinary unleaded gasoline. This could be quite a jewel when all the propane is long gone.
Other Types of Portable Stoves
There is the Sterno® type of stove, with a fold-up base and cans of alcohol-based fuel underneath. These are for keeping food hot – not cooking food. They usually cannot provide high enough heat to bring the food up to the proper temperature to kill bacteria. It may not be possible to boil water with this kind of stove. They do keep chaffing dishes nice and warm. And you can quickly sterilize a needle in the flame for emergency medical uses like removal of a splinter. I’m a bit ambivalent about these stoves, as you can see.
There is a stove that has the same sort of fold-up base, but has a special solid fuel that gets very, very hot. They are inexpensive, very portable, and well engineered for all uses. Good for backpacking as well as emergencies. Here is a link to the Esbit Stove so you can see it for yourself. I like it.
Barbecues, hibachis and similar charcoal burning heat sources are highly recommended for food, if you know how to use them properly, including how to get the internal temperature of food up to 160 degrees F or more… and have enough fuel. Fortunately, they can also be used to burn wood or other medium-temperature fuels. But not gas, gasoline, lighter fluid, etc. You do not want to blow yourself up like a cartoon character. Burns are not good, and especially not good in an emergency situation.
You also want to NOT use any chemically treated fuel source such as paper that has colored ink on it (very toxic smoke) or treated lumber (very toxic smoke) or anything containing plastic (very very very toxic smoke), or anything else that will produce toxic smoke. That goes for all stoves and all fires, of all types, at all times. Which brings us to…
There may be a time where you want an open fire, perhaps because it is the only option under the circumstances. I’ve certainly been there.
Making a campfire can be simple. You gather wood that has fallen from trees and dried out naturally. You make a little ‘log cabin’ of crossing pieces of small, thin wood. You put a little tinder (anything that is very dry which will catch fire easily) in the middle of the stack of wood. You light the tinder with a match or lighter. As the flames begin to leap up, you very gingerly start adding small pieces of wood to the fire, making sure you put in enough, but not so much that it soaks up the heat of the fire and smothers it. Then gingerly put in a few little larger pieces. Wait until they catch fire. Then put on your fire a couple of still larger pieces. Make sure they are burning well. Then large pieces… wait again… and more large pieces. When the fire is roaring, you can put on a log, if you want, and it won’t get smothered, because there is enough heat so that the large wood will not soak it up and put the fire out. That’s about all there is to it. Except…
Woops… we just started a forest fire. We did not make sure that the fire pit was at least 20 feet away from anything else that could catch fire. We did not check for overhanging branches. We left a can of lighter fluid next to it, and it exploded. Nice knowing you, Uncle Dan. We did not check the ground to see if there were roots or anything else that could burn away from the firepit once the fire got started.
Boom! We used river rocks to define the firepit, and they are exploding. Boom! Great fun! But shards of rock are flying through the air like shrapnel. We will have the opportunity to practice our emergency medicine skills. If we survive. The river rocks are exploding because they retain moisture a long, long time. The stream may have dried up a long time ago, but the rock holds enough water for it to boil and cause steam inside the rock. Boy, we won’t do that again! Especially if we do not survive. We wish that we had not used those very rounded rocks, tumbled that way by the action of running water. We wish we had used rough rocks that had never seen a stream or lake or ocean before.
At this point it might be appropriate to mention that you really do need to have enough water close at hand to put out an accidental fire you might cause. A wind can come up out of nowhere and blow embers quite a distance. Someone could get too close and their clothing catch on fire. Someone might grab a stick from the fire to play with it.. and find out it was already embers on the bottom side. These things happen. So if you have an open fire of any kind, also have water instantly available to help take care of any problems.
When you are through using your fire, smother it with dirt first. The goal is to take away the heat and the air from the fuel that is burning. If you throw a bucket of water on a good fire, it may seem like it goes out… but possibly only the outside of the burning pieces may be affected. A sort of ‘skin’ can form and there can still be extremely hot embers burning on the inside of a branch that looks perfectly quenched on the outside. So take the fire down with dirt, and then slowly add water and stir the ashes around, making sure each piece of incompletely burnt fuel is absolutely, completely out. Then pour more water on it. Stir it again. Make certain there is nothing hot enough to burst into flame in a sudden wind. Some people say you should feel the fire with your hand to make sure it’s out. Not me. I come back in a while and check it out. Pour more water on it if I have any doubt whatsoever. And then maybe check it again later. Yet another instance where it is far better to be safe than sorry.
You can use campfires to cook food (make a grill out of a couple of metal clothes hangers and some internally dry rocks), to boil water (you can put a metal can directly in the fire if there is enough water in it), or warm your hands on a cold night. You can use it to keep yourself from freezing to death in very cold weather. You can use it for a signal, with or without making smoke by sprinkling a little water on it. You can tell stories around it, because that is very friendly and can raise morale tremendously. Bring some marshmallows.
Hints: wet fuel is not recommended. Try to dry it out as much as possible first. If you have a little dry fuel, start that burning, and put the wet stuff near the fire to dry out. BIC® type butane lighters work better than matches. Zippo® lighters tend not to go out in the wind like butane lighters, but you need lighter fluid to refill them. Shavings from a block of magnesium, available here, will burn at tremendously high temperature long enough to get some tinder blazing, when you strike a spark into it. They are made to be carried on your belt, and could be a lifesaver in the right circumstances.