It is not hard to find fascination in the elemental power, beauty and value of fire, especially with regard to its effect on the human race. So I was delighted to head once again for the woods of Oxfordshire and meet up with fellow trainee fire-starters on the Woodland-Ways ‘Intermediate Fire Weekend’.
Ability to kindle fire in the wilderness is a primary skill for the outdoorsman. It has been said that ‘the more pressing the need, the more challenging the task’, and this was evident as we got into the detail of what fire is, how to ignite and how to sustain it. The level of dedication to experimentation and research into fire making by Jason Ingamells and his team should not be underestimated, and was a great platform for exploring exactly what is happening during the process of combustion. Not only this but an examination of the history and archaeological record of fire making gave a rich context to our own attempts at creating flames.
It was great fun to try out a host of techniques from flint and steel with Amadou (prepared tinder fungus Fomes fomentarius), regular matches and lighters, modern pyrophoric steels with myriad tinders both natural and man made, through to exothermic chemical reactions created by mixing potassium permanganate with sugar, and also with glycol antifreeze! We also learned about how to use various parts of a 4wd vehicle to yield fire materials and ignition sources.
After learning about where to site fires for different purposes, and various fire-lays, the instructors issued a challenge, asking students to return to camp within two hours having collected natural materials to light a small fire using sparks. Foraging suitable materials, even when using a modern steel (which sheds high grade sparks of 2,980oC) has its challenges for the learner, and springtime is a part of the year less abundant in tinders. However, all participants successfully gathered, prepared and ignited fires which were sustained for a few minutes, and gave a great feeling of success!
I chose to gather the few remaining dead grasses I could find (as stage one kindling) and spread them between my jumper and shirt to dry them out prior to ignition. With a little catkin down as tinder (dried in my pocket) added to the buffed grass, I was relieved to see my sparks take effect, and kindle the other materials into flame.
My confidence in creating effective wilderness campfires safely is certainly higher, and I look forward to drilling further into the realm of fire making at the advanced course where we will learn about friction fire techniques!