Fire: Your Partner in Survival


Eons ago when people lived in caves, one of their most important tools was fire. Its ability to keep them warm, cook food, provide light, and scare away predators was of the utmost importance. I’m not going to go so far as to say that a societal upheaval will mean returning to a stone age existence, but when the systems that keep our everyday life humming along go down, fire will once again have a huge impact on our ability to survive.

This fact was brought home to my wife and me two winters ago, when a February blizzard knocked out the power to several counties. It was early evening – the lights flickered a few times, and then the house was plunged into darkness. Everything became eerily quiet, save for the wind howling outside and snow pelting against the window.

Then there was another sound – the reassuring popping of a log in our big airtight Franklin stove which continued to throw off its heat, oblivious to the fact that the juice was off. For the next thirty-six hours we used it to keep us warm, melt snow to flush toilets, and even did a some cooking over its coals. While other folks along our country road bundled up in sleeping bags and shivered until the outage ended, the disruption to our lives wasn’t nearly as great as it could have been.

If you live in a northern climate, staying warm is important for nearly half of the year. Did I say “important”? Make that “vital” because without a way to keep the temperature in your home or bug-out place at a life-sustaining level, you will die of exposure! Your gas or oil furnace will be fine… as long as your fuel supply lasts or the electricity doesn’t fail. These are finite resources, however, and during a long-term disruption of goods and services, your pilot light will go out at some point (probably just when a January blizzard comes howling in).

The only logical solution is to turn to wood heat, or more precisely, a wood-burning airtight stove (fireplaces are fine for ambiance, but horribly inefficient for warming you since most of the heat goes up the chimney). The next question, then, is where will your wood come from, and what skills and tools do you need to convert it to usable fuel for your stove?

Log Logistics

The countryside is full of burnable litter. Next time you’re out and about, take a look around. Fallen branches and even a downed tree or two are common sights in any woodlot or park, or along rural roads. Most of it, though, is too small to keep a fire going with the BTU output that’s needed to warm your home. Real “firewood” consists of pieces of thick branches or trunks that have been cut and split to a size of about 16” long and roughly 5” or 6” in diameter. Anything smaller will require re-stoking the stove every few hours, while bigger pieces may smolder unless the fire is wastefully large.

At present, I get most of my firewood supply from a local landowner, who doesn’t like downed trees lying around and sees it as a favor when I clean up the woods for him. After a big summer storm, city folks without saws will gladly offer you a tree that’s toppled in their yard. Likewise, a downed tree across a rural road usually belongs to the first one who’s there to cut it up. During bad times it would likely be possible to barter for timber with a landowner who doesn’t have the tools or know-how to utilize it himself -probably working together and then sharing it. State or federally-owned hunting land and wildlife areas also have downed timber, which can often be claimed by anyone with the gumption to go get it.

If we ever arrive at a point where vehicles and trailers are no longer available, all of your wood will have to be hauled by hand. That means that laying in a good supply now, when you can still move it efficiently, would be a good idea. Having a sizable woodpile to begin with puts a buffer between you and calamity. Get your wood from the more distant locations while you can still truck it, and leave the easier pickings for when you may have to move it manually.

Wheel barrows are, in my opinion, a poor way to transport anything heavy for any distance due to their chronic balance problems. With their single, small, pneumatic tire, they are not made to move loads over uneven ground. Take one into the woods and roll over a few blackberry brambles, and the tire will inevitably puncture and go flat. A better alternative is one of those “game haulers” with large, hard rubber wheels. They’re made for going over rough terrain easily, and can handle a maximum load with a minimum amount of effort (they can also haul around a lot of other heavy stuff that might need moving).

Burning Questions

Literally any wood will burn. One year we survived two months of a Wisconsin winter heating with willow – a wood near the bottom of the BTU list. Likewise, this past winter we used a fair amount of box elder – another low grade tree. Woods like this certainly will throw out enough heat to keep you warm, but they burn fast, requiring a larger supply.

The “primo” varieties include oak, hard maple, locust, hickory and apple. Next down the line but still good, are ash, birch, cherry, and hackberry. Unless there is nothing else available, however, avoid any of the evergreen species, since their resin content tends to start chimney fires, spit sparks, and can flash back when you open the stove door.

Firewood should season for at least six months after being cut green (a year is better) although a few varieties, like ash and locust, will burn without much drying.

How much is enough?

We’ve just been through a mild winter here. Spring has arrived and, after checking the wood shed, I see that we’ve gone through about six cords of mixed hardwood (a stove cord is a stack four feet high, eight feet long, and 16” deep). A bad winter, like last year’s, would probably have required another cord.

A household could get by on a lot less, though. For one thing, we have a large stove and heat the entire place with it. The fire is usually lit in November and doesn’t go out until late March. A smaller stove heating a smaller area would take far less fuel. And if our wood supply had been limited, instead of basking in 70 degree temperatures all winter, we could have stretched the supply by burning less – in an extreme case, just enough to keep the place at 50 degrees. This would have been uncomfortable, but it would have enabled us to survive.

Cutting Remarks

If you envision doing your cutting with a chain saw after society falls apart, picture those last precious (and irreplaceable) drops of gas disappearing into its tank. Even if you’ve stocked a large supply of fuel and bar oil, gas has a shelf life, and how many chains do you have? The other problem with a chain saw (besides the fact that, being a machine, it will need unobtainable replacement parts at some point) is that it makes noise. This broadcasts a message to anyone within a mile that someone’s cutting a pile of firewood that could be pilfered from the producer as soon as he’s finished the work.

Long-term survival requires stepping back into the 19th century and taking up the hand saw. Do you have one capable of cutting through a 30 inch tree trunk? Probably not, but realizing the need for producing burnable chunks suitable for splitting that will hold a fire all night should inspire you to get one.

A crosscut saw capable of handling tree trunk needs to be either a one or two-man model 48”-56“ long. If you’ve got a partner, go with a two-man type. I’ve got one that can be set up either way, with add-on handle on one end that converts it from a solo saw to a duo.

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