By Lawrence T O'Malley

Fire has warmed, fed and fascinated humans for millennia. It could be argued that the single most influential discovery or invention in the history of human development was that of harnessing the power of fire. It, combined with a large, active brain, give people more than a fighting chance in a harsh world among larger and stronger wild animals.

Of course, in modern society, fire is not necessarily used for cooking or heat or for protection from wild beasts. The principles of fire are certainly used for things like powering vehicles or heating homes, but people no longer have an essential need to interact directly with fire. This does not mean that fire does not still hold its original primal fascination. There's something enchanting about staring into a campfire on a cold night.

Because many people do not interact regularly with fire, it's difficult for them to get one going or put one out if the need should arise. This is not a terribly difficult skill to acquire, but a little knowledge of the principles involved combined with a little practice will to a long way.

Understand first of all that fire is somewhat like a living thing. Actually, to be more accurate, living things are more like fires - people and animals burn food, but simply at lower temperatures. To initiate and sustain combustion, a fire needs food and fresh air, and in the right proportions. A lack of one is not made up for by increasing another. If a person is suffocating, feeding them more food will not solve this problem.

When building a fire, plan for air ahead of time. The goal is to have the air entry point and heat below the fuel. Heat rises, so air in the fire will come in at the bottom and leave out the top. The problem is that the bottom end of the fire is usually suffocated by being directly on the ground. Solve this by building a small platform of sticks, in a criss-cross fashion like Lincoln logs. Build a pyramid over this, starting with extremely small sticks and gradually using larger ones. At no point should there be a large disparity in size between any two pieces. It's impossible to ignite a tree with a match. Place a ball of paper on top of the platform, under the pyramid and light this. Blow on the flame until it roars to life.

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