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Today is May 23, 2022


The Perfect Fire

By Tony Kinton

The Perfect Fire

Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire” is perhaps the most poignant tale ever written recommending preparation and the need to follow good advice. The Man had disregarded such sound advice from the Old Man at Sulphur Creek and left there alone to reach Henderson Creek Camp. Friends waited there. In the telling, London counts down degrees, beginning with 50 and ending with 75 below. Unquestionably a life-threatening situation. 

As you likely know, The Man found himself freezing. His attempts at fire starting were misguided at best, and the entire affair ended in disaster. London says of him, “He was not much of a thinker.”

Hopefully none of us will be caught in life-or-death struggles where fire would have saved the day. Even so, fire starting is a skill that everyone should know. Modern ingredients such as lighters and ferro rods make the chore quite simple but are no good unless one or both of these are with the one trying to start that fire. I have a lighter, a ferro rod, and an old-fashioned combo of flint and steel (along with char cloth) with me always while in the woods and fields. 

That all aside and an emergency not present, fire starting is still a valid and often-used skill. For instance, camping season is underway. Few things say camping more eloquently than an enchanting campfire. But that fire must be, in addition to safe and controlled, one that is pleasant, welcoming, not a smoky mess that foils the occasion. There are ways to mitigate smoke and create a fire that is inviting rather than repulsive.

The first step in preparation is to have good wood. Hardwood such as oak is preferable; poplar burns easily and generates admirable heat. But, poplar burns quickly. Whatever chosen should be seasoned and dry. Damp wood, whether sap-filled or rain-soaked, will make life miserable. And how you prepare — build, if you will — that fire from the very beginning is key.

I once came across instructions on building a smokeless fire. I don’t know that any wood will be entirely smokeless, but after many years of following this tactic, I can say with authority that the method is much improved in the smoke department. And it begins with the proper wood as mentioned above. You will need it in varying diameters or splits. Split wood burns more easily than a solid round stick.

Begin with a bottom tier, three splits are my choice. Place them parallel but not jammed together. Move to the next tier with smaller splits and do the same except these will be across the ones below. Use enough to span approximately the length of that bottom tier. And a third tier, smaller splits than the second, these stacked in the same direction as the bottom tier. And so on, three or four tiers. All that remains is some fat pine chips or other easily-ignited kindling on top, maybe even a little of this dropped between the top two tiers. Light that kindling and a smokeless fire will be your reward.


Tony Kinton has been an active outdoors writer for 30 years. He lives in Carthage and is a Central Electric member. Visit for more information.

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