Firemaking As Rain Starts

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So much for firestarters - how do you actually use one to start a fire? Well today I had bought myself a new axe as you see in the photo's so it was time to go to the upper Kitimat River forestry campsite to try things out. The reason for going to this campsite is that I went there for coffee yesterday and know how wet the wood is there. All the firewood in that campsite is cottonwood (Black Poplar) which is terrible to start a fire with until seasoned. You need a good fire to dry the stuff out!

The Key to the Situation

First of all in damp situations, you need a natural tinder that will catch a spark and produce a flame. That was simple - I used cedar bark off living trees. I used more than one tree getting the driest bark. What isn't seen here is what it looks like when properly shredded. I'll post pictures of that later. It has to be fine - which you accomplish by crushing between stones or using an axe head , then rubbing very vigorously between your palms. Very very vigorously - this dries it as well as shreds it! I had already chopped some spruce off a living but fallen tree. This spruce wood is from a wound on the tree and has lots of spruce gum attached. The wood itself is impregnated with gum, and so is dry even on a living tree.

The yellow stuff is the gum. Notice the cedar to the left. You can see where I stripped some cedar bark yesterday. Today I looked for drier stuff.

Here is a closer shot. Besides admiring my new "Hults Bruks" axe you will want to notice the brown wood that isn't bark - its resin impregnated wood. The wood is required as the resin or gum itself is like oil in a lamp - a wick is required.

This is the bit we've been waiting for. This is exactly how much cedar bark and resin impregnated wood I used. Even I didn't think that It would be enough. It was though. The cedar bark was shredded a lot after I got the borrowed camera out of the rain - but I didn't break up the resin impregnated spruce wood more than is shown.

The Fire

This is exactly how you DO NOT normally do things. I placed split cottonwood directly on the cedar bark tinder and spruce wood. I wanted to see if there would be enough heat to dry the cottonwood enough to start the fire. Normally you would go around the conifers ripping dead branches from the lower part of living trees. This wood is the driest available and will get things going - especially if split to match thickness. I wanted to see if the spruce would start the cottonwood - and I didn't even split the cottonwood finely as you can see. Notice the black smoke in the centre and bright flame from the resin. The white smoke is mostly steam from the cottonwood. This isn't a teepee fire, notice that the wood on top is mostly just stacked against a piece of charred wood in the front. I kept on piling wood on top to keep the rain off. You would think that this would smother the fire - but this doesn't happen as long as there is an opening for air in the bottom. The wind is blowing into this opening which is why the fire kept going. Some of the wood on top is placed in an inverted V perpendicular to the wood below - to make more of a slope for the rain to run off. This wood should be sticks not just slabs - to let the smoke out. This wood is removed to add more wood to the fire parallel to the stuff below - then replaced.


  1. I don't see how I could have chopped and split out resin impregnated wood without an axe, hatchet or very sturdy knife. Using a 41/2 pound axe it was simple.
  2. It took very little heat from the cedar bark to start the resin impregnated wood on fire. Resin by itself is very hard to light!
  3. I was amazed by how long and how hot the small amount of resin impregnated wood burned. I'll be honest and say that I was trying to see how much would be required - after a failed attempt.
  4. I was playing - and it did work.. This is not a good example. It's best to light every fire as though your life depended on it - because one day it might. I should have used dry dead twigs off trees as kindling and split the cottonwood into much smaller chunks. The fire would then have been assured, and would have built up far more quickly.
  5. I like a "lean to" fire with wood mostly parallel and leaning on something. I find that this works better than a taller tepee style fire. The reason you see wood at other angles is to keep off the rain. There was more than the few sprinkles on the rocks suggests ( a tree provides shelter). I build a fire as though I was trying to stop the smoke from getting out, and just keep piling on the wood. As the lower stuff burns through it falls down and the higher stuff falls onto the support and holds things up.
  6. We have a damp climate here but lots of spruce and balsam fir trees! I built the fire with materials within a few feet of where the fire was situated. I could have used the dry outer bark of the huge cottonwoods, chipped bark off large hemlocks, and the fallen spruce, and used dry dead twigs from standing conifers to get the fire started more quickly in that it would have been hotter and larger more quickly to dry out the cottonwood. Stripping cedar bark and letting it dry out in a pocket close to the body would have been a good idea had I been travelling - as would collecting resin impregnated wood. Collect before you need - forage as you go! Resin impregnated wood gets very sticky as it warms - wrap it in something before putting in pocket/pack

And after a few years - Update

With the above, a lot of stress is placed on some heavy duty firestarting tinder that will help get everything else started. A question came up on the Outdoors-Magazine forum of whether I still use some sort of special tinder on a regular basis - and if not how I get things to work. In any sort of wet conditions, having something to help is a smart move and I'm careful to have something handy: usually though I work just with the wood at hand. Obviously I've had my trials and frustrations - but I've learned a few things too.

Here's the setup on a local beach with someone else's circle of stones and even some wood they left.

Even though everything looks dry enough, and we've had warm weather lately - the tide comes up to a few feet from circle of stones for fire - so there's a lot of dampness just below the surface. What is really needed is to raise fire so that it gets lots of air and any slight breeze can get at it to fan it. I'm also going to use a pretty strange way of setting things up - a sort of upside down firelay.

Here's a more wide angled picture before starting:

The first step is to put in the supports for a platform:

A nice grating of split wood is added - thick enough to hold up everything and not burn through too quickly.

I've placed some split up kindling on top of the platform, with this kindling being placed in line with wind so that lots of air can blow through it. Normally I'd use more than this, but this fire is for photographic purposes, and we want to see what's happening.

Now a block of wood is needed to lean some tinder against, and a few fine sticks to support that tinder so that it doesn't fall.

Here I've laid a very few fine fuzzies and started them. I've used cedar so you'll see they're darker. This wouldn't be enough for wet conditions - but again here we just need to see what's going on. I'll be adding finely split wood on top.

Luckily we've reached the point where it's easily seen that I've built a firelay on top of another one - and that burning embers are falling and starting stuff below. Normally, the wetter the conditions the more fine stuff has to be added on top.

Here we get a side view of fire on top going well because it's getting LOTS of air and draft, and embers falling. The key here is that the wood is damp - but split finely enough, and with enough draft it'll still go well. If we'd have built on the ground in a circle of stones - it wouldn't have got fanned by wind.

Here we see fire with piles of stones at sides to help funnel the available wind. The wind is blowing from right to left and a guest is making flames bend and reducing smoke.

Looking at fire from upwind, we can see that things are going well due to draft and wind.

Here's a view from waterline which shows that there isn't much wind because smoke is rising vertically. Given what we've seen of flames, that amount of smoke shows how damp the wood was. As a matter of interest - the dead standing tree of a bit over 30cm diameter is how much wood it would take to get through a night in winter.

Here stones at sides are pushed over to form a fire circle. There's lots of hot embers and ash, and now things can be slowed down by decreasing effect of wind.

The dark brown area in the middle of the wrist sized log is dampness coming out of log - despite how long it's been in the fire. With really wet wood, water would be oozing out. It's a sign that wood hasn't been split fine enough and is slowing everything down. In this case it's part of the bottom platform and we didn't want it to burn through quickly.

Here's another piece of platform grid showing same - but to a lesser degree because it's split finer.

All in all it seems to be a really strange way of setting up a firelay - first building a platform, then an upside down firelay with thicker material at base and finer stuff moving up. Then building a regular firelay on top of that. But it's a guaranteed way of getting maximum benefit from upward drafts and wind, and falling embers fall onto material that's been heated and dried from above. With really wet wood, it will still catch if split up fine enough and started with enough fine enough fuzzies. A person might have to keep adding a whole bunch more fine stuff on tp until things get hot enough for everything to catch.

Don't be shy. Email me with suggestions for improvement, comments..


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