Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fire, by Christopherson Salt Chuthers

Today in the News:  Thanks to everyone who sent wildlife photos.  I don't quite have enough for a week, but I'll be sprinkling photo posts in here and there. 

Christopherson Salt Chuthers returns today with a good one on fire starting.

Link of the Day: I can't help it.  I love this blog.  I love all things post-apocalyptic and zombiefied.   Thanks to LeLoup for ponting me to the site.

Fire, by Christopherson Salt Chuthers

In retrospect, I blame Smokey the Bear.
Starting a fire was easy, his flickering cartoon visage told us from the projection screen.  Leave your blanket too close to your night light.  Plug too many electrical devices into an outlet.  Leave your glasses on a window sill next to your film collection.  Just one oblivious moment of carelessness could be enough to cause your old unchecked Christmas tree lights to birth a forest fire that would wipe out half of the state and obliterate entire species native only to the Maine woods.
Not to be outdone, my first-grade teacher was quick to pause the film and add, “It would also ruin the logging industry, and many of your fathers would be out of a job.  So, no Christmas presents for you!” 
Let’s recap: old blanket + night light = overwhelming wildlife carnage and a life without Christmas. 
Roy Rogers didn’t help either:  he started fires by emptying the gun powder from his bullets onto kindling.  That seemed pretty simple.  Louis L’Amour taught me that buffalo poop burned pretty good.  I started to wonder how my world had survived unscathed for so long, when fire was so readily available and easily sparked.  I became nervous around candles, scared they might spontaneously combust.  My parents thought I’d finally got over my fear of the dark when I removed my nightlight from its outlet and placed it far across the room. 
So I was more than a little disappointed when I finally got around to trying to start my first fire.
Our house had a wood furnace when I was growing up.  One fall night, my mother told me to go start the furnace.  I walked into the cellar, examined the metal monstrosity closely, and returned to the kitchen. 

“Where’s the start button?” I asked casually. 

Ma glanced critically at me and held out a box of matches. 

I returned to the cellar and opened the furnace door.  The ashes of previous fires coated the bottom of the pit.  I shrugged and threw in a piece of wood.  Then, squaring my shoulders and holding my breath, I took a runner’s stance and raised the match to the box.  Quickly I brought the match head across the graded strip on the side of the box.  The match flared to life.  With reckless abandon I threw it at the wood, slammed the door shut, flipped the lock lever up and pounded up the stairs.  Startled, Ma turned from the sink and glanced at me. 

“It’s done, Mom!” I said proudly.  “I started the fire.” 

Ma raised an eyebrow.  “Did you use kindling?”


I made my way down the cellar stairs hesitantly, half-expecting a sudden explosion.  I crept over to the furnace.  Squared my shoulders.  Held my breath.  Whipped open the door, cringing from the expected raging inferno… and stared into the dark depths at a cold, pathetically unsinged piece of firewood. 
I blinked. 

Well.  Okay, then.  Walking across the cellar to the kindling pile, I selected several thin strips of cedar and piled them carefully around the piece of hardwood in the furnace.  Then I repeated my match-chucking regiment:  the squaring of the shoulders, the holding of the breath, the muttered internal prayers, the chucking of the lit match into the depths, the slamming of the door, and the mad dash for the stairs.  I nodded to my Mom on my way through the kitchen.  She hollered at my retreating figure, “Did you use newspaper?”


I returned to the basement with icy dread.  At this point, I was sure opening the furnace door would cause sparks to fly out and savagely attack the kindling pile twenty feet away, then spread to reduce the only home I’d ever known to ashes in a matter of minutes.  I wondered if I should go hide my G.I.Joes first.  Stifling the terror rising inside of me, I flipped the lever up and eased the furnace door open.
In the dull light of the single bulb dangling from the ceiling, the haphazard pile of kindling and sole piece of hardwood stared... well…there’s no better word for it: it seemed to stare woodenly back at me.  If trees were capable of feelings, this pile was clearly unimpressed at my ability to make a fire.
I wondered if I should go and get my night light and a blanket.

A few months later, I told my older brother about my failure to light a fire.  “Building a fire is easy,” he scoffed.  “I build them all the time.”  I stared at him dubiously.  He wasn’t a careless smoker (or like most thirteen-year-olds, any kind of smoker for that matter), he didn’t leave his glasses on the windowsill – or even wear glasses – and to the best of my knowledge, he didn’t own any Christmas lights.  Or bullets.  Or buffalo dung.  I had a hard time believing he was good at starting fires.

But he was quick to prove me wrong.  We crouched down in the grass next to the old barn as he carefully stacked a few old scraps of boards in a pile.  “Now, your first step is, make sure the wood isn’t wet.”  I nodded.  That made sense.  “Next,” he said, “you put your wood in a pile.”  This also made sense.  I nodded again.  Making fire really was pretty easy.  Maybe Smokey wasn’t *really* on the crack pipe. 
“Then,” the B&A Stowaway commented, “you stick a sparkler under it.”  From the pocket of his jean jacket he produced a brightly-colored Morning Glory.  From another pocket he pulled a Bic lighter.  I stared jealously at the lighter.  Confidently he lit the red tissue-paper fuse at the end of the sparkler.  It flared into life, then glowed for a minute before going out.  “Darn it!”  The Stowaway produced the lighter again and held it under the tip of the sparkler.  A few seconds later it flared to life, removing B&A’s knuckle hair in the process.  He stuffed the Morning Glory under the pile of wood and shook his hand vigorously. 

“Watch!” he said excitedly. 

And with great anticipation, we watched as the sparkler flared with great intensity for thirty seconds or so, then sputtered out.  Smoke drifted up through the pile of wood.  But no fire.  B&A squinted.  “This isn’t good wood for burning,” he declared.  “It must be poplar.”  I nodded sagely.  That made sense.  …Probably.
He took off in the direction of the garage while I watched the firewood carefully, just in case it chose to burst into spontaneous flame.  It didn’t.  He returned a few minutes later with an old newspaper and a glass jar full of clear liquid.  “This’ll work,” he muttered, rolling up a page of newspaper and shoving it under the wood pile.  Then he screwed the lid off the old Cheez-it bottle in his right hand and shook the clear liquid over the wood pile, spattering some on his sleeve in the process.

“What’s that stuff?”  I asked.

“Girl Scout Juice,” he replied solemnly.

I nodded, impressed.   I thought they just sold cookies.  The whole juice-selling thing was news to me.
B&A reached into his pocket.  Then his other pocket.  Then his pants pockets.  A worried expression appeared on his face.  “Do you see my lighter?”  I shook my head no.  “Musta dropped it when I lit the sparkler,” he said, glancing around him.  Shrugging, he reached into another pocket and brought out a pack of matches.   “This will work better anyway,” he told me seriously.  “You want to be careful around Girl Scout Juice.”  I nodded and tried to casually ease back a few yards. 

B&A struck a match on the side of the matchbook and chucked it at the pile.  It landed in the grass and puffed out.  Inching closer, he pulled another match out.  Lit it.  Chucked it.  Watched it bounce off a piece of wood and die in the grass.  He muttered something under his breath about the unhelpful nature of the poplar tree and lit another match.  This time, he leaned in and carefully touched the flame to the sodden paper. 

Instantly it burst into flame.  A sudden, ferocious flame, the kind you don’t get without chemical help.

So did his arm.

I have never seen my brother dance, except for the moments he has been on fire.  Some people dance with grace.  B&A dances with reckless abandon, but usually it’s because he’s trying to put something out.  In this case, half of the sleeve of his jean jacket was spouting a flame that could have roasted marshmallows from ten feet away.  Whipping his arm through the air didn’t seem to be helping, but it *did* make it look pretty awesome.  Right then and there, I decided to maintain a healthy respect for Girl Scouts.  With juice like that, I wasn’t going to hassle ‘em.

B&A finally put his arm out, but not before losing the hair on his right arm up to his elbow.  By the time his jacket had gone out, so had our campfire.  That poplar wood really sucked, I guess. 

A few years later I stole a Boy Scout Handbook from another kid at school and memorized the section on building a campfire.  It was fascinating to me that the construction of a good, solid fire required a process, and that a well-built cooking fire didn’t necessarily have to be big or involve chemical propellants.  (But God bless the Girl Scouts anyway.)  It’s still fascinating (and a little horrifying) at how easily an accidental fire can start, too.  My father-in-law spent most of his career as a forest ranger fighting fires caused by big campfires built on a windy day or a cigarette flicked into an old pile of leaves.  I think about that every time I watch a carefully-constructed triangle of hardwood topple over and extinguish the smoldering tinder beneath it, leaving me to eat my marshmallows cold. 

Maybe I should bring old Christmas lights next time.

That bear really didn’t know jack squat.

Christopherson Salt Chuthers


  1. Excellent! I love it! I have been lighting camp fires since I was about 6 years of age, & we tend to take a lot for granted. I mentioned in my new Primitive Fire Lighting book that a careless cigarette butt thrown into summer grass can start a bushfire, but making fire when you need it is sometimes not so easy when you don't know how (well something like that).
    A great post, thank you.
    Regards, Le Loup.

  2. Chuckin a roman candle into the long grass next to a river is a great way to start a fire too. We still owe you a bright red fleece, Mike Oscar.

  3. lol Roman candles are so fun, i have been doing a couple of primitive camp holidays. They really good fun and you can learn so much.