The Elements of a Perfect Fire

building a fire
Let a flame gorge.Chris Crisman

The Spark

It is mesmerizing, this incandescent fusillade that seems to leap from your fingertips. But there is nothing mystical nor magical about a shower of sparks. Your task is pure physics: Aim at the delicate tinder. Shelter the smoking ember. Tease it to life with your breath. A spark is a tiny, fleeting bit of fire—a few metal molecules that flare and die in less than an instant, and in that instant there is the possibility of heat and comfort, a warm meal, a light for the path. But a spark is no promise. On the other side might lie darkness, cold, fear, and death. A spark is an instant, and what happens in the instant after is up to you.

The Flame

This is the hungry time. A small flame licks from the tinder. It needs fuel. It needs air. It eats chaos—the broken and crushed, the bent and ugly. Feed it quickly. The young fire is an ill-mannered beast, smacking its lips, cracking and popping and spitting embers. Let it gorge. There will be time to shape the flames and tame the blaze and turn it into the fire you want it to be. For now, give it what it needs, all it wants; take no chances that it might wither and flicker into smoke and smolder.

The Coals

Sooner or later, the fire burns down to this—a constancy, a persistent glowing ember. The roaring blaze is the adolescent fire, tempestuous and needy. This is the steady burn, older, wiser, something you can rely on. Coals will sear a steak and brown bread and after the day is done, even as they fade, the dying flickers carry a promise. Five thousand years ago, Ötzi, the famed Iceman of the Alps, died in the snow. He carried a copper ax, a longbow of yew, and a small birch-bark ember pouch. Once it held a tiny coal, the last glowing bits of his very last fire, and the seed of a blaze he would never live to build.

The Ashes

These are the remains—curling wisps of calcium carbonate, drifts of deconstructed salts, traces of iron, manganese, and zinc. After the crackling, the light-leaping, the blush of heat and revelry and the long silent staring as the flames flicker and die, these downy pillows of gray near-nothingness are good for soapmaking and fertilizer. They will clean a skillet in a pinch. But most of that is from ­another time. These days, ashes are good for little but remembering. Stir them with a stick in the cold of morning and watch them rise, little bits of swirling laughter and fellowship from the night before.

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