Fire As a Living Organism

By , January 10, 2010

Fire is like a living organism, requiring oxygen, fuel, and warmth to “live.” Removing any of these reduces the burn until it “dies.” I try to think of fire as alive, and consider it wild, selfish, and treacherous to develop good safety habits when heating our home with wood.

All living things have stages of development. Understanding a fire’s stages enables me to offer help when needed.

My fire begins as an infant, relying on me to provide all its needs. At this stage warmth is most necessary, before it can produce its own heat.

Fire quickly reaches its teenage, possibly growing beyond reasonable limits, always hungry, and completely undisciplined!

It then becomes a responsible adult, working competently if provided food and oxygen.

Eventually, it settles into irascible old age—feeble, but still capable of violent outbursts, requiring life support to delay its eventual death.

Keeping these concepts in mind, here’s how I start a fire.

I prepare a fuel bed with lots of air trapped among the materials.

I start with tinder: balled up newspapers, “clean” paper trash (no garbage—especially plastics!) or birch bark, dried mosses, and twigs. I find a healthy layer of tinder in the center of the woodstove’s burn chamber spreading outward works well.

I then lay kindling in a “lattice” of crisscrossed sticks to help fill our long burn chamber.

My stove’s instructions say, “fill the chamber with wood,” which I must remember—I tend to make my fire’s small, which doesn’t allow the stove to heat to best advantage.

Dry materials are essential. Personally, I avoid fire starters. If my fire won’t start with a match, my materials aren’t dry enough. I never use accelerants—gasoline, lighter fluid, or kerosene! I won’t risk my life and home for a faster fire.

My infant fire needs oxygen. Chimneys draw oxygen from the woodstove, sucking in fresh air from the room. Heat must push a column of cold air out the chimney for proper draw. A few newspaper wads on top of my laid fire, lit before the tender below, can help warm the chimney and speed draw on a cold day. I open my stove’s draft completely for more oxygen.

Soon after my fire starts, it becomes a teenager. Growing fast, often to the limits of my firebox, it consumes everything, and wants more. It usually grows and thrives, but could fall apart without support.

As the tender burns, I add fuel. The kindling might burn down below contact with larger wood, and go out. Larger wood settles onto the kindling as it catches, creating a good fire core.

I always open my stove carefully. Live embers may pop out; opening the door too fast may suck burning material out, or disrupt a delicate draft, slowing my burn.

Before long, my “teenager” becomes an “adult,” settling down to heat our home. Once the fire burns steadily and vigorously, I might adjust the draft to control rate of burn, closing it to extend combustion time, leaving it open to heat faster. More oxygen produces less creosote, particularly when burning softwoods or greener, wetter wood.

I can also regulate the fire with different types of wood. Dry softwoods make a fire hotter by burning fast; wet, green woods slow a fire, cooling it. If the fire becomes too hot, I throw in a less seasoned round—it’ll often cool right down!

Eventually, my fire enters “old age.”  If fed less often, it reduces to a bed of coals. We can bank these overnight, to be made up in the morning, or fuel can be added to burn through the night.

Overnight burns are tricky, and potentially dangerous. We add full rounds, then close the draft partially or completely. The rounds burn slowly with little air, for lower, longer lasting heat. Come morning, we open the draft and the leftovers start a new fire.

Reducing draft creates creosote, coating the chimney and the stove’s glass front. It’s a trade off that must be considered.

Thinking of fire as a living organism is a bit odd, but helps when dealing with it. Since we depend heavily on it for heat and warmth, it makes a certain sense to treat it as a member of the family!

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