Do you know how to start a fire?
As we settle into the biting cold winter months, now is the best time to gather your friends and family around a fire pit for some evening warmth and good times. But, before you can enjoy that warm, crackling glow, however, there’s one crucial step — actually starting a fire that’s going to stay the distance.
If you’ve never started a proper fire, especially in a self-contained fire pit, you might be surprised to find out there’s a little more to it than striking a match and watching some wood go up in flames. It’s not that complicated, but it does require some love and care to make a fire that doesn’t pump out lots of smoke and keeps burning all night.
Step One: Get everything organised
Before you start, especially if you are in a suburban area of Australia, it’s always a good idea to check the legality of operating a fire pit in your back yard. Check our article on how to make sure you are doing the right thing.
Starting a fire in a fire pit requires three key materials:
Tinder is something that is very easily flammable to get things going. Think newspaper, dry leaves, and straw. You can also use fire starters or lighter fluid here if you have it, but that’s kind of cheating.
Kindling is thin sticks or twigs that will burn quickly to start things off.
Fuel is what will keep your fire burning — your old, dry, wooden split logs. It’s essential that your wood is sufficiently dry or ‘seasoned’ as this helps to have a clean, hot fire and reduces smoke. In fact, with properly seasoned hardwood, you can almost have a smoke-free fire once everything is well lit.
One substantial piece of firewood should last a good 45 minutes or so.
You want about an armful of tinder or kindling. You can also buy particular kindling in bags from Bunnings that doesn’t require tinder if you’re not in an area blessed with many dead twigs.
Step Two: Construct Your Fire
Start by laying down your tinder, then layer your kindling. Don’t place everything down at once; you’ll need some for later. Arrange the kindling in a rough teepee formation over the paper or small twigs.
It’s important to ensure there is sufficient space between the small kindling at this stage. We want the first stages of the fire to create enough heat to fully ignite the kindling and this requires a good flow of oxygen.
Step Three: C’mon baby, light your fire
Strike a match and set fire to your tinder. It should start to burn pretty quickly. As the tinder burns, the flames will start to draw up from the tinder and smaller pieces of kindling should also start to catch fire.
At this stage, if you start to see small coals develop on the thinnest parts of your kindling and can start to hear the ‘crackling’ sound of the wood starting to ignite then you are in good shape. Don’t touch the fire too much at this point, it just needs time to develop some momentum and heat.
Step Four: Layer Your Fuel
Add your smallest piece of fuel to the fire when the kindling starts burning. Again, arrange it again in a teepee shape to ensure there is plenty of air flow in and under the wood pieces. Don’t be surprised if everything sort of collapses — that helps build embers, keeping the fire going for longer.
As your smallest fuel burns, start to add larger pieces of wood.
The teepee arrangement of the fuel is essential. You need to allow airflow under the fuel so that the flames can combust and burn for longer. If you lie the fuel flat over the fire, you’re likely to smother it and lose your flames.
Step Five: Keep an Eye Out and Stoke the Flames
Once the fire is going nice and correctly, the real challenge begins.
Keep an eye out for stray embers or if the flames start to get too large. Having a good-quality portable fire pit is essential too. Safety is the most important thing when working with fire. If the fire gets too large, let it burn down.
If the fire starts to die down before you want, use some of your leftover tinder and kindling to feed it. Don’t add fuel until the fires have got up to a decent size; the fuel requires a more significant, hotter flame to ignite, so you’re likely to just run down your fire trying to add fuel too early.
Step Six: Putting out the fire
You want to let your fire burn down for about an hour before putting it out. Don’t place any fuel on the fire within an hour of you wanting to leave.
After an hour or so, the fire should be down to just embers. Use sand and dirt to put out the fire. Do not use water. This will damage your fire pit, create steam, and be unreliable as a good shovelling of dirt. If you have no dirt around, you can easily get bags of clean dirt or sand from a hardware store for almost no money.
And there you have it! Lighting a fire isn’t quite as simple as most people think — but it’s not exactly rocket science. Take your time, build it in layers, and just keep an eye on it. You’ll be enjoying a warming, roaring fire in no time in your backyard fire pit.