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Fire for Survival, Part 3: Fire Safety and Survival Usage

Using fire in a survival situation might seem like a simple and straightforward thing, but fire is such a versatile and multifaceted thing that it does require some attention to detail and understanding to maximize its effectiveness, especially in a survival situation. Fire is as deadly as it can be lifesaving in just about any situation; it’s important to understand how to use it safely and effectively: to remove yourself from a survival situation.

Fire Safety in a Survival Situation

As was discussed earlier, the basics of fire are ignition, fuel, and oxygen; if you take away the fuel or the oxygen, you can extinguish the fire. In a survival scenario, it may be difficult to do either of these, especially with limited resources or when you may be caught off guard. Therefore, the burden in minimizing fire safety concerns in the wilderness or a survival situation is proper planning, preparation, and good judgment.

While you can potentially put out a fire in a survival scenario with water, natural fiber blankets, clothing, or other means, it’s likely not your best choice. In a survival situation, you will need these things to continue staying alive. Your best bet for dealing with a fire situation that has gotten out of control in the field is to try to regain control by preventing the spread of the fire until it burns out.

For orchestrating safe and effective fires, you’ll want to start by clearing the area completely. Generally speaking, snow, dirt, and rocks are not flammable, so they will provide the best base for a fire (although some porous rocks can explode, and some fine groundcovers can pose an ignition threat). You’ll want to control the size of your fire and keep it roughly twelve to thirty-six inches in size.

You’ll also want to clear at least ten feet on every side if possible, though in some scenarios this may not be realistic. Above 105°F or so, just about everything in the outdoors becomes flammable, and while there is a fine line between “flammable” and “combustible,” suffice it to say you should clear just about everything from a ten foot radius/sphere surrounding the fire. You will want to pay particular attention to branches hanging nearby or significant deposits of foliage, dead leaves, and other natural fodder.

Fire perpetuates more fire: as a fire becomes hotter, it seeks more fuel, and more fuels become available to it based on the simple fact that is generating more heat. What once might not have been easy fuel for a fire can change in the event that the fire becomes hot enough.

Of note is the fact that the normal survival situation may not dictate a fire larger than eighteen inches in diameter—such a fire could produce enough heat to cook, disinfect water, and provide residual heat while the survivor sleeps.

Perhaps the best survival fire is an underground method called the “Dakota fire hole,” which will not only produce a clean efficient fire, but it will also distribute smoke more evenly and lessen the chance of a fire getting out of control.

Producing a Smoke Signal

While the author consistently touts the most important thing about survival is surviving itself, some reasonable attention should be paid to looking for rescue.  A “Dakota fire hole” can serve as an excellent means for both surviving and looking for rescue. Because the “Dakota fire hole” doesn’t require as much attention or monitoring as a normal open fire, it can serve well for preserving food (i.e. smoking) and producing usable smoke to help alert rescuers of your approximate location. Both are significant helps in the survival process.

While smoke signals may seem a bit “Boy Scout,” in a survival scenario, practicality and availability will dictate the methods with which one can use to help ensure survival and rescue. In a survival situation, knowing the basic premises of primitive techniques will almost always be more useful than knowing the intricacies of modern technologies used for the outdoors.

Make sure you have large well-lit coals in the fire, and loosely blanket the fire in green dense brush or leaves that will create moisture vapor to intensify and enlarge the smoke volume. You will want to build a wall around the fire and remove one segment of the wall so that the coals can continuously be fed oxygen at the base to keep the fire lit. Without this excess oxygen, you run the risk of suffocating the fire.

With the “Dakota fire hole,” oxygen will not be a problem and you can structure several layers of branches inside of the main fire hole to serve as a base to lay at least ten to fifteen minutes worth of smoking material on top. The benefit of having several “Dakota hole” fires is that the fires don’t have to be monitored as closely and can create immensely more smoke in a safer manner while allowing you to be away from the dangerous smoky area.

Using multiple fire holes to create cylindrical, uniform smoke streams will provide you with the opportunity to signal for miles and miles away. If you place these holes in strategic locations, you will simultaneously avoid smoke exposure and allow yourself to create three distinct origins of smoke. The international distress signal involves utilizing sets of three as often as possible. Three distinct fire sources in one area, especially when rescuers may already be looking for you, can provide a pinpoint location for rescuers to move towards. Utilizing a fire hole design will keep you safe and avoid undue environmental damage in the process of being rescued. Because of the design’s inherent efficiency, the amount of fuel required for each hole will be substantially less than an open fire.

Remember that moke inhalation is a killer. It, combined with carbon monoxide poisoning, accounts for perhaps the largest percentage of deaths surrounding fire. Carbon monoxide restricts oxygen, smoke can be difficult to see in, and fires throw off particulate matter that can cause major breathing concerns. All of these mean that being too close to a smoke-filled area can be very dangerous, if not deadly.

*An important note: In a situation where an individual is lost, hurt, or unable to be rescued after a relatively significant portion of time, the idea of starting a “forest fire” for signaling purposes could become attractive. In almost no case is this a realistic or smart venture. Unless the individual starting such a fire has advanced knowledge and experience with large-scale fires, such an attempt could be incredibly dangerous. Even with significant training and understanding of fire science, such an undertaking could be deadly. More realistically, someone looking to be rescued should consider setting up one or even several self-contained safe fires used to create smoke for signaling.

Tips for Using Fire Safely and Effectively in a Survival Scenario

  • Build fires so that smoke cannot be trapped in or surrounding your shelter.
  • If you feel flush or you look in your survival/signaling mirror and see bright red coloration on your face, neck, or chest, get into open fresh air immediately.
  • Use rocks to transmit the fire’s heat in as many ways as possible to avoid being too close to the fire for too long, especially while you sleep.
  • Conserve body heat; don’t rely only on your fire to provide heat for you. Use insulation from the wild to bulk up the airspace surrounding your body (cattails, down and feathers from bird nests, furs from animals you hunt, etc.).
  • Never manipulate the fire using bare skin.
  • Use hardwoods and large pieces of fuel in your fire to ensure stability and long-lasting heat.
  • Don’t leave multiple fires burning overnight; stick to the fire closest to you, which you will be able to monitor most efficiently.
  • Be realistic with the amount of fuel you will need for your fire.  If you think you have enough, you probably only have about one-tenth as much as you need.
  • Remember the basics of fire science: if you take away the fuel or the oxygen, the fire usually cannot continue.
  • When in doubt, ventilate.
  • Firewalls should be an appropriate distance away from the base of the fire.
  • The area surrounding the base the fire can get very hot through radiant heat; you may be able to use the earth as a cooking vessel by wrapping food in hearty green leaves (non-toxic of course) and burying them for a period of time.
  • Take the time to build a good, efficient, and stable fire in the beginning; you will not regret it.
  • Natural fibers tend to burn, and synthetic fibers tend to melt; exercise caution when working around fire.

Fire can be a lifesaver, but it can also be a death bringer. Emergency and survival preparedness necessitates understanding the science behind fire and how to manipulate and control it. Those with the skills to understand all parts of the fire-making and usage equation will be better prepared to extract the most efficiency from a fire and stand the best chance of using it to perpetuate survival, rescue, and a safe environment.

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