I’m not sure when the earliest humans began to use fire to cook their food, heat their living spaces and provide nighttime lighting. Some research points as far back as 1 million years. The accepted belief is that fire was discovered, not invented, perhaps started by lightning. However it came to be, at some point, our ancestors learned to start and control fire. Those first controlled fires were built of wood.
For thousands of generations, until relatively modern times, wood fires have provided comfort, light and a means to cook food.
It is difficult, today, to sit by a camp fire at night without being caught in a hypnotic stare. The surrounding darkness is meaningless; the fire becomes the sole focus of our eyes and minds at the time.
Building a camp fire is pretty easy if you don’t let your intuition get in the way. Most people, whether building a camp fire or a fire in a wood burning stove or fireplace, know that heat rises. Intuitively, they assume that the fire should be started at the bottom of a stack using paper and small kindling at the bottom, and building a stack or pyramid of increasingly larger twigs, limbs and logs. Then they ignite the paper and let the rising heat ignite the larger pieces above the starting point. This way works, but it isn’t the best way.
There is another and better way to build a fire that will burn slower, hotter and put out much less smoke. You build the stack upside down from what your intuition tells you. You place the larger logs on the bottom, and start building a stack or pyramid with increasingly smaller limbs and twigs. Finally you place some paper, tied in knots (to provide some density), on top and surround the knots with some tiny twigs. Then, you ignite the paper at the top and watch with amazement at what happens.
As the paper begins to burn, the small twigs adjacent to the paper also ignite. The heat from the paper and twigs starts heating the slightly larger twigs beneath them to the point they start to release gas that ignites. This is the stuff that would be going up as smoke if you had started at the bottom. Usually these flammable gasses are too cool to ignite and they escape with the smoke. With this technique, your fire ignites the gasses before they escape with the smoke. You can actually see small flames forming in the air as the gasses ignite above the unburned wood. The burning gas is a clean burn with minimal smoke, with greater heat that then heats the larger twigs and limbs beneath them. They, also, start to release gas that ignites. Hot ashes and sparks from the exhausted burn at the top begin to fall into the stack to create heat that releases even more gas. As this gas rises it is ignited by the flames above. This process continues slowly downward consuming every piece of wood encountered.
I didn’t believe it either when I first heard about this way of building a fire. I’m pretty scientific and I knew this wouldn’t work. Eventually, I tried it and I’ve never built a fire any other way since. Try it the next time you build a fire, whether in a fireplace, wood burning stove or campground. You’ll never go back to the other smoky way either.