It's a familiar apres-ski scene: early evening at the condo. A plate of brie appears, someone's mixing up gin and tonics, and you volunteer to build a fire. You stuff in yesterday's sports section, toss on a pile of logs and…it doesn't catch. One sorry ribbon of smoke curls into the chimney and disappears. Shameful. Pathetic. Unmanly.
Well, don't burn these pages. They contain fail-safe instructions for building the perfect fire every time—the kind that catches right away, remains safely in the fireplace and burns bright long after the fondue's gone. We all know the basic formula—newspaper, logs, matches—but the fact is that some fires just seem to burn better than others. To find out why, we asked battalion chief Steve Zwirn, of the Park City Fire District in Park City, Utah. Zwirn's been manning the hoses for 17 years, and in addition to extinguishing his share of fires, he's built quite a few, too.
Step 1 Supplies
Wood - Dry wood, to be precise. If you know you'll be building a fire in the evening, bring in eight logs—enough to keep a fire going for a couple of hours—that morning so they'll be dry by cocktail hour. Zwirn favors pinyon pine—"it burns hot, and it doesn't pop that much"—mostly because that's what's available in northern Utah. "But I also hang out at a cabin in western Montana, and up there we use lodgepole pine," he says. Whichever wood you choose, "don't use wood with a lot of bark on it. Bark doesn't burn worth a darn."
Newspaper - Take your pick.
Kindling - Like money or land, you can't have too much.
Long kitchen matches - Or, suggests Zwirn, "one of those lighters with the long snout—they keep your hands away from the fire."
One thing you don't need - "Absolutely, positively no lighter fluid," Zwirn warns. "It's not wise to use any flammable liquid inside. Don't do it."
Step 2 Check the Flue
Few things will clear a room of friends quicker than large clouds of black smoke. These can be avoided by making sure the flue is open before lighting a fire. Sounds obvious, but determining whether it's open can be difficult, especially in a rental house.
,br>"I grab a flashlight, stick my head in and look up," Zwirn says. If you're at all uncertain, start small. "A lot of people try to build a huge fire right off the bat. That's a mistake. Not only is it harder to light, but if by any chance the flue's closed, you're in trouble."
Step 3 Crumple
First layer: newspaper. But don't just roll it up or jam it in under the grate. "Flat paper won't burn well," Zwirn points out. Balling up paper creates crevices, which in turn create all-important airflow. "I crumple as many pieces as I can as tight as I can and pack them in close together." And for safety's sake, don't add more later. "It's not uncommon for the drafting effect of the chimney to suck burning paper up. If you don't have a spark arrester (a screen that keeps burning embers from flying out), the burning paper can wind up on your roof, in trees or on your lawn. A lot of people throw more paper on later—paper plates when they're done eating, maybe—and they can shoot right up."
Step 4 Kindle
"The key to starting a good fire is kindling." Twigs, small branches (an inch or less in diameter), even strips of thick cardboard will work well. Use a lot. A good thatch of kindling on top of a grate above the paper will catch easily, creating sufficient heat to bring the wood to its ignition temperature. Only about 79 percent of the average log is combustible; the other 21 percent is water and nonflammable solids that turn to ash. The gases in most woods usually ignite between 600 and 900 degrees. "Wood doesn't actually burn. When you heat it, it decomposes and gives off flammable gas. That's what burns. So you have to preheat your wood before you'll see fire."
Step 5 Layer Your Logs
"Start with two thin logs right on top of the kindling—about two inches in diameter. Lay those acrross, then place one thicker log on top, diagonally. This creates airflow between the logs. A lot of people try to use a pyramid formation, but I don't recommend that. There's too great a danger of the logs falling out." Thin logs are important because they don't need as much heat to start burning. "With big logs right away, you run the risk of burning out all your kindling before the wood reaches its ignition temperature. Start small, then when the fire's going, add medium, then larger logs."
Step 6 Spark It Up
To light the fire, quickly touch one match to the newspaper at two locations. "Back corner on one side, then the front corner on the opposite side. Always make sure you do the back first so you're not reaching past a spot you've already lit," says Zwirn.
Step 7 Handling the Flame-Out
If you've adhered to the details above—and fire building is all about the details—you shouldn't face this problem. But hey, it happens. Zwirn says there's usually one root cause: insufficientkindling. "You've got too-big logs on top and not enough kindling." Don't remove logs—they're likely still hot from your attempts thus far. "Shove some kindlingin as best you can, and light it from the side," says Zwirn.