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Fire and Water

Don't let a little drizzle put a damper on your campfire.

By Bernadette Noll

Where I grew up, on a small lake in New Jersey, winter meant frozen water and lots of time on it. We would skate miles across the icy lake using a blanket held aloft as a sail. On the ice we would have huge bonfires. Under these conditions, fire and water mixed quite nicely, as the roaring fire melted away the top layer of ice, creating a layer of water which then extinguished the flames before they could thaw their way through. It was a thrill to be out in that cold, turning slowly in front of the fire, and I can still feel the cold sting on my back as my face burned from its proximity to the flames.

For campers in Texas, fire and water usually don't get along so well. But there is no need to abandon your campfire or your campsite just because of a little rain. You can still make a campfire roar, even on the dankest of days.

In any fire primer we learn that fire needs three elements to burn: oxygen, fuel and heat. Without the "fire pyramid," the fire dies. Water removes two important elements: heat and oxygen. In order to get the fire going on a damp day, we need to combat those forces with a bit of clever camping know-how.

Look around your campsite for trees with low branches that are protected from the rain. On an evergreen tree, for example, the lower branches that die from lack of sunshine are often the same ones shielded from the rain. Because they are dead, they are brittle and easily broken off the tree. Under those same trees you may also find dry grasses or small dry sticks. Gather as much dry material as you can from this and other such protected spots.

From fallen dead trees you can garner dry wood by stripping away the outside layer of bark. Inside, the wood should be fairly dry and easily inflamed. Dry materials might also be located under these trees or under the forest's heavily canopied areas. Be thorough in your search and collect as many dry pieces as you can, in all sizes; no piece is too small.

The smaller pieces will serve as good tinder. If you are car camping, other tinder might be found in your vehicle in the form of receipts, old maps and other expired papers. Search your wallet too. These papers will serve you well. If you plan ahead you can easily make wax fire starters (as described in the November 2007 Skill Builder). These can prove quite helpful, especially in the rain.

Once you have accumulated your collection of timber and tinder, keep them dry by placing them under your pack or a piece of plastic, or under your car if you have one - anywhere the drips won't find them. Any large pieces can be placed near the firepit so that once your fire is started, the heat will dry them.

In the firepit, lay a small row of dried sticks. On top of that put the tinder, mixing small sticks with the paper. Next, lay two sticks, on two sides of the tinder. On top of those, stack two more in the opposite direction - Lincoln Log style. Repeat this until you have a stack of wood approximately a foot high, creating a chimney. Now, assuming you've got dry matches or a lighter, light the tinder inside the chimney. The chimney will create a nice updraft, allowing your fire the air it requires. Hover over the flames using your body as a shelter from the rain. As the timber catches, place more sticks on little by little, being careful not to smother the flames. Blow air in to help with ignition.

Add more and more sticks until the fire is roaring nicely, at which time you can add bigger logs. As the fire grows, even damp logs will ignite until you've got a nice fire that can dry more wood and create the ambience we all seek when sleeping under the stars - or under the clouds.

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