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Tight Lines
Fire Building Basics
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When I was about 10 years old our dad would take my brother Chris and I along with him when he went trout fishing. One rainy Saturday along the Tuolumne River dad taught us how to build a fire in the rain. He found a big overhanging rock and we got a got a fire going out in front of it. The heat reflected back off the big rock and we were warm and dry as toast. It rained all day and we had a great time.

Reading London’s To Build a Fire must have made me paranoid, because I don’t just carry matches to build a fire. I also carry disposable butane lighter, a magnifying glass and a zip-lock bag filled with fire starting tinder (lint from your clothes dryer makes great tinder). Although it doesn’t happen very often, there are times when I’ve gotten soaked by falling in a creek or by being out in a day-long rain. When you’re soaking wet and so cold your hands are shaking, being able to build a fire is a huge deal. Heck it might even be a life and death situation. Whatever the case, I’m not taking any chances.

As youngsters, my buddies and I would be out in the woods at every opportunity. Early one spring we were able to convince our parents to drop us off at the top of Ebbetts Pass for an overnight camping adventure in six feet of snow. We built a fire, cooked our dinner, and told the usual campfire stories, until it was time to turn in for the night. Naturally being raised on the Smokey Bear model, we made sure our fire was dead out. The temperature that night was about 20 degrees below zero, and soon all of us were freezing cold in our summer sleeping bags. Finally we got up to relight the fire and avoid hypothermia, only the wet wood didn’t want to burn. We tried everything and no fire. This was getting serious.

Finally I had the bright idea that we could use our knives to slit open shotgun shells and get some loose gunpowder to help start the fire. Gunpowder only explodes when it’s confined in a tight space. Sprinkled loosely over tinder and topped with kindling, loose gunpowder just burns with a bright flame and starts a fire very handily. We were feeling pretty proud of ourselves, having thought of a way to resurrect a wet fire. Knowing the used shotgun shells were empty, we proceeded to toss them into the fire. Imagine our surprise when they began to merrily explode just like firecrackers! We had forgotten about the unfired primers in the shot shells and were enjoying the free fireworks display until one of the exploding primers shot me right below the knee. It sailed right through my pant leg material and burned a nice neat little circle pattern in my leg which I still have to this day. If you ever see me wearing shorts, I’ll be glad to show you my primer scar. Throwing empty shot shells is now right near the top of my list of really stupid things to never do again.

What do they say, that the painful lessons are the ones you remember longest. In any event, next time you go afield, be sure to take adequate fire starting materials with you. It ensures that you won’t run the risk of hypothermia in the snow or freezing rain. Just don’t blow yourself up in the process!

Until next time, Tight Lines.


Don Moyer is a longtime Central Valley resident and avid outdoorsman. He contributes occasional columns.