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Fire Building

North American Indians were always clever with their fires. Four kinds of fires were used. The Council Fire inside the teepee was a formal kind of thing. The Friendly Fire-somewhat larger than the Council Fire-was to warm everybody in the village. The Signal Fire, was built for sending up smoke signals. The Cooking Fire was a very small fire of glowing red-hot embers. Scouts use the same kinds of fires.

Clearing the Ground

Before lighting your fire, remember always to do as every backwoodsman does, and that is to remove all grass, dry leaves, bracken, heather, from round the spot, to prevent the fire from spreading to the surrounding grass or bush. Many bad bush fires have been caused by young "tenderfoots" fooling about with blazes which they imagined to be camp fires. Where there is danger of a grass fire, have branches or old sacks ready with which you can beat it out.

Scouts should always be on the look-out to beat out a bush fire that had been accidently started at any time, as a Good Turn to the owner of the land or to people who may have herds and crops in danger.

Laying the Fire

It is no use to learn how to light a fire by hearsay. The only way is to pay attention to the instructions given you, and then practise laying and lighting afire yourself.

In the book called Two Little Savages, instructions for laying a fire are given in the following rhyme:

  • First a curl of birch bark as dry as it can be,
  • Then some twigs of soft wood dead from off a tree,
  • Last of all some pine knots to make a kettle foam,
  • And there's afire to make you think you're sitting right at home.

Remember the usual fault of a beginner is to try to make too big a fire. You will never see a backwoodsman do that-he uses the smallest possible amount of wood for his fire.

First collect your firewood. Green, fresh-cut wood is no good, nor is dead wood that has lain long on the ground. Get permission to break dead branches off trees for it.

To make your fire, you put a few stiks flat on the ground, especially if the ground be damp. On this flooring lay your "punk"-that is, shavings, splinters, or any other material that will easily catch fire from your match.

On this you pile, in pyramid fashion, thin twigs, splinters, and slithers of dry wood, leaning on the "punk" and against each other. These are called kindling.

A good kind of kindling can easily be made by slitting a stick into several slices or shavings, as shown. This is called a firestick. If stood up, with the shavings downwards towards the ground, it quickly catches light and flares up.

A few stouter sticks are added over the kindling to make the fire.

Lighting the Fire

Set light to all this, putting your match under the bottom of the "punk".

When the wood has really got on fire, add more and larger sticks, and finally logs.

A "tenderfoot" after lighting his fire will blow out his match and throw it on the ground. A backwoodsman will break the match in half before throwing it away. Why ? Because if the match is not really out and is still smouldering it will tell him so-by burning his hand.

Several Kinds of Fires

A great thing for a cooking fire is to get a good pile of red-hot wood embers, and if you use three large logs, they should be placed on the ground, star-shaped, like the spokes of a wheel, with their ends centred in the fire. A fire made in this way need never go out, for as the logs burn away you keep pushing them towards the centre of the fire, always making fresh red-hot embers there. This makes a fire which gives very little flame or smoke.

If you want to keep a fire flaming during the night for light or to warm you, use the star fire with one long log reaching to your hand, so that you can push it in from time to time to the centre without the trouble of getting up to stoke the fire.

To keep your fire smouldering overnight, cover it over with a heap of ashes. It will then be ready for early use in the morning, when you can easily blow it into a glow.

Here is a way they use in North America for making a fire for heating your tent.

Drive two stout stakes into the ground about four feet apart, both leaning a bit backwards. Cut down a young tree with a trunk some six inches thick; chop it into four-foot lengths. Lay three or more logs, one on top of another, leaning against the upright stakes. This "reflector" forms the back of your fireplace. Two short logs are then laid aft fire-dogs, with a log across them as front bar of the fire. Inside this "grate" you build a pyramid-shaped fire, which then gives out great heat. The "grate" must, of course, be built so that it faces the wind.

Putting Out the Fire

A Scout is very careful about fires. When he uses one he sees that it is well out before he leaves the place. The fire should be doused with water and earth, and stamped down well, so that there is not a spark left that might later start a fire". Finally the original turf-which was put on one side before you made the fire-is put back so that hardly a trace is left.

Tongs are useful about a camp fire. They can be made from a rod of beech or other tough wood, about four feet long and one inch thick. Shave it away in the middle to about half its proper thickness; put this part into the hot embers of the fire for a few moments, and bend the stick over till the two ends come together. Then flatten away the inside edges of the ends so that they have a better grip-and there are your tongs.

Making Fire without Matches

What would you do if you needed a fire and had no matches ?

A Zulu boy's way of getting over the difficulty is to find a piece of hard stick and drill a hole with it in a piece of soft wood. By twirling it rapidly between his hands he manages to make embers which then set light to dry grass or the lining of the bark of trees, and from this he makes his fire.

It is a long way from South Africa to Australia-across thousands of miles of ocean. Yet, when you get to Australia, you find that the aborigines there had many of the same customs and many of the same dodges that were practised by the people of South Africa.

The Red Indians of North America also have their method of fire-lighting, which is very much used by the Boy Scouts there.

In this case, the boy takes the spindle of hard wood and holding it upright with one hand, the palm of which is protected by a wood or stone hand piece, he twists it rapidly round by means of a bow whose string is twisted round the spindle.

The point of the spindle then works its way into a board of soft wood, which the boy holds in place with his foot.

A little slit at the side of the board leads to the hole made by the spindle, and the hot ember which comes away from the wood falls into this small opening and sets fire to the tinder which the boy has placed under it.

So a fellow who has once learnt this way of making fire, and knows which kind of wood to use (for not all kinds are suitable), can go out into the backwoods, without having to carry a match-box with him and can keep himself warm or cook his grub at any time he would wish by lighting his fire in the backwoods way.


Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell (Chief Scout, London, UK)

Date of Creation


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