How Not to Build a Fire

Peter Oumanski

I LOVE PLAYING WITH FIRE. I like making, lighting, and tending it. According to anthropologists, I suffer from a case of arrested development. But so do you. The scientists point out that in Indigenous cultures, children are encouraged to play with fire almost from birth. They make fires and cook mud pies. They burn themselves. They learn fire’s ways. Consequently, their fire curiosity is satisfied before they reach double digits. After that, fire becomes just another tool. Like a hatchet, only hotter.

Thirty years ago, on my only trip to Africa, I saw just how arrested my development has been. In a Masai hut, I encountered a fire so expertly banked that it seemed to consume nothing. It was asleep and would be revived when needed. Another day, a group of young men cooked a fish dinner on the beach over a blaze of sticks. Catching quickly, the fire died to a bed of coals. They broiled the fish for maybe five minutes. And then the fire burned itself out. Completely. As if it had been unplugged. It was closer to witchcraft than fire craft. The third fire was for smoking strips of some kind of meat. It was tiny, just two or three crossed wrist-size sticks that sent up a whisper of smoke. It looked wrong, too small and too weak to ever smoke anything. I sat and looked and slowly realized it was maybe the most skillful fire of all. Untended, it would smoke weakly like that for hours, neither flaming up nor burning out. It was perfectly suited to its purpose.

This experience humbled me for a whole week before I became full of myself again. And here’s the thing. I kind of dig the fact that fire still fascinates me. 

When it started to rain on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, we told ourselves that at least it wasn’t cold. I’d been on the water for about four hours with a friend and his two brothers, the three Burnett boys. It was September, when the bugs pause from their summer bloodfest to burp and let you fish in relative peace, which is the point. It was getting late and I was tired of having a wet butt when we beached on an island and set about making a fire. To appreciate this moment, you need to remember that every man alive is convinced of three things: He is the best driver, has the best sense of humor, and is the best fire builder he has ever seen. Africa had snuffed out the master-fire-builder illusion in me, but the remaining two were doing just fine. The fire egos of the Burnett boys, on the other hand, were thriving. They had two additional kinds of kindling. One was the brotherly love that had convinced each brother that he was the leader of the family. The other was that they were suffering under the burden of accreditation, each having passed an Outward Bound survival program on these very lakes. I doubted that combustion would take place anytime soon.

What happened was that one brother would attempt to build a fire while the other two explained why his fire would never ignite. Then another would try. Then another. Between the four of us, we had butane lighters, waterproof matches, regular matches, ferro sticks, and a Fresnel lens (which is a great way to start a fire on the kind of sunny day where you don’t need one). No one, naturally, had given a thought to tinder. The two observing brothers offered reasons why the fire maker of the moment was failing. A lack of oxygen at birth was mentioned, as was the chronic use of controlled substances. Then there was brain damage from high school football, except—whoops, I forgot you got cut from the team, didn’t you? Lest you think well of me, I quietly considered myself a much better fire maker than these knuckleheads. That said, they were absolute experts on where to poke one another for maximum effect. I contented myself with observing the spectacle. This, I’ve come to realize, is pretty much my role in life.

I remembered that we had a bottle of 100-proof bourbon along. Short of acute hypothermia, however, nothing would make us consider it as a fire starter. After a while, I went looking for my own tinder and remembered that my first aid kit included a small tube of Vaseline. I cut off a piece of a cotton sock, rubbed the Vaseline into the fibers, and set it beneath my tinder pile. A few seconds later, I called, “Hey, y’all come over here a sec.”

“What for? We’re busy.”

“’Cause I got a fire going,” I said. As I recall, they were more resentful than appreciative that I’d succeeded in making a fire and I was voted dishwasher that night. The next morning, over coffee, Steve said, “That was kind of a dick move last night.” The two other brothers grunted their assent. “And you used Vaseline,” one muttered. My first thought was that they should be grateful that I’d saved their sorry behinds, built a fire, and made a warm dinner possible for us all. But it was also true that I had—in the manner of men everywhere, and particularly those suffering from arrested development—gloried in showing them up. And I had used Vaseline. It was kind of a dick move. “Sorry,” I said.

That night, when we reached our next campsite, I was given the job of fire builder. “No Vaseline allowed,” they stipulated. After 20 flameless minutes in front of three brothers smiling as they occasionally broke into the chorus of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” I threw up my hands and got the tube of Vaseline. I was forgiven, which, quite often, is the best you can hope for.

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