THE COLD FRONT had passed. Rain-soaked wood and dropping temperatures were left in its wake, and I was concerned. Could I start a fire and warm my chilled backside and my chilled wife with the single match held between forefinger and thumb? I thought back to the classic Jack London story “To Build a Fire” and wondered if I had what it took to survive the damp coolness of an Arkansas winter with minimal equipment and my wits, let alone the minus-75-degree frozen hell of the Far North, where London’s character (spoiler alert) met his icy demise.
Flicking the match’s head on stone, the fizzle and spark finally flamed on the wooden stick as the smell of sulfur dissolved in the northwest breeze. I touched the tiny blaze to a nest of cedar bark, and the tongue of light licked at the sap-sticky fibers, then flickered, barely alive. A glowing orange and then charred black spread through the tinder as white smoke puffed up through the still cold kindling. The fire was gasping, and it needed my help to catch its breath.
I knelt to eye level with the smolder and blew, first gently, then with more force. The embers responded with a brightening, and smoke billowed into the night air. A final hearty puff brought full ignition as the blaze flared up through stacked hickory and oak twigs.
I settled back into the camp chair, a smug grin smeared across my face. Five minutes later, as I placed a bigger log on the fire, I was still smiling. I couldn’t stop smiling. My pride soon led to a quiet boasting to my wife about her husband’s incredible woodsman abilities … until she told me to shut up or she would go inside and watch another episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Yes, this one-match fire happened in my backyard, but the skill has been put to use in various fire pits across the Ozark National Forest. Highly flammable tinder, open airways and a good ember bed are the keys to a one-match fire. Here’s how to do it.
THE BEST, ABSOLUTE best, fire tinder found in Arkansas is cedar bark (note: what we call cedars are really junipers, but that’s another column). Cedar bark is cloth-like and peels off of the tree in ribbons. The fibers are already loose, frayed, and often hold dried remnants of the sap that help it catch fire. Since it grows on an evergreen, cedar bark also tends to not get soaked in rain. So the first step to building a one-match fire is to find a cedar tree, strip the bark and form it into two palm-sized spheres. If you can’t find cedars, dry grass is the next best option. In a pinch, I’ve used my pocketknife to slice shavings from a seasoned (which means dead long enough that most of the fluid sap is gone) stick for tinder. I’ve also gone full caveman and used seasoned twigs pounded between two rocks until the wood fibers separate. Frayed, stringy fibers are important because they can be packed together into a malleable mass. Also, individual fibers dry and light much easier in even a small flame or embers. Don’t pack your handfuls of tinder too tight. You want air to circulate freely between the fibers.
Next, set your tinder aside, and find pencil-sized and smaller twigs. This is your kindling. The drier the better on all counts, but I’m mostly talking sap content. Thin, water-soaked twigs will quickly dry in a small flame, but sap-filled wood (particularly hardwoods) will starve a fire. The best test for seasoned twigs is flexibility. Green twigs will be more bendable. You want twigs that easily snap. When you collect two handfuls, set them aside and find two handfuls of larger twigs. You should also find a few wrist-size sticks to feed the fire after you have coals and, of course, have some logs handy when the fire is right for them. The best way to tell if larger pieces of wood are seasoned is relative weight, appearance and how they sound when you knock them against each other. These are learned skills requiring practice. Rain-soaked bigger wood can be a problem, so if it’s been raining, look under evergreen trees or any semiprotected area.
Once you’ve collected your ingredients, make a hand-sized triangle on the ground in the fire pit with three sticks about the thickness of your thumb, and place several dry leaves in the middle as a barrier between the cold, damp soil and your fire. On top of the leaves, place one ball of tinder. The leaves and bottom tinder make up what I call the ember bed, and it’s crucial. If the other handful of tinder, which you’re going to place on top of this one, doesn’t blaze up, you’ll need a fuel-rich place for the embers to fall so you can breathe life into them. Press the bottom tinder down into a disc shape so it doesn’t protrude above your foundation. Lay three or four pencil-sized twigs across the tinder supported by the bottom thumb-sized sticks. Now lay two more thumb-sized sticks crisscross on those; then place your other handful of tinder—shaped into a shallow upside-down cup—in the square space between the thumb-sized sticks.
Build a “log cabin” by laying your smallest kindling in an alternating crisscross pattern on top of the three-tier foundation and tinder and one another in order of ascending size. After a couple of layers (probably 8 to 12 inches tall), you can, and I often do, turn the log cabin into a hybrid tepee with my largest sticks leaning against the walls, which are essentially the “pole” of the tepee. Be sure to leave space between the sticks so that air can get into the center of your tepee … or log cabin … or whatever you want to call it.
Now take one match from the box and look at it. Consider your human frailty and the very narrow band of temperatures within which you can survive. Consider that this one match, under certain circumstances, could be the difference between life and death.
After a moment or two of deep existential thought, strike the match and cup your hand around the precious little flame, lest a scoundrel breeze extinguish it, and gently touch the lit match to the tinder within your tepee/log cabin walls. Try to light the center of your top tinder right in the cupped depression.
It should flame a bit and smoke a lot, but the fire may go out. That’s OK as long as you have embers, in which case you’ll need to get up close and personal with a few gentle puffs, increasing in intensity as the embers respond. There should be lively, hot plumes of smoke as you blow on the embers. All that smoke is a good sign. It means the wood and the tinder are drying, becoming ever more flammable by the second. Be patient and thoughtful with your new creation as you coax it into maturity.
As the fire grows, feed it carefully until a solid bed of coals glows like lava. Then throw a couple of big logs on, lean back in your camp chair and smile with smugness. But don’t crow about your prowess too much or you may find yourself sitting by the fire all alone.
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