Saturday, April 14, 2012

Favorite Fire Starters

I've given up on butane lighters, from disposables to the very expensive Brunton Helios. They've let me down too many times. These are what I've settled on, clockwise from the top:

"Stormproof" matches - REI markets these, and they're the best matches I can find. 

Pros: can be used to light candles and lamp wicks; once the match is struck, no amount of wind or water - not even a dunking - will make it go out until it's run its course.

Cons: require two hands; matches and strikers affected by moisture; impractical to carry more than a dozen or two in your pockets.

The aluminum K&M match case is very high quality, holds about a dozen matches plus a couple strikers, and has a compass inletted into the top. A good thing to have in a pocket on any hike. The yellow UCA match case holds about two dozen matches plus strikers, and also has a convenient striker on the outside. It's too big for pockets, but good to keep in packs.

Ferrocerium rods, or "Firesteels" - alloys of iron, magnesium and rare earth metals extruded in various diameters. The top one shows the magnesium rod and scraper kept with it. Most firesteels are manufactured by JX Metals in Shanghai, then branded and marked up (sometimes dramatically). To use them, you literally scrape particles of metal off the rod, and if done quickly enough, heat generated by friction will ignite them. An impressive shower of very hot sparks is the result. With a little practice, you can usually ignite tinder consistently with one scrape. Don't use the sharp edge of your knife, use the squared-off back of the blade, or better yet, a dedicated scraper. Anything that's very hard will work well. Tool steel is excellent. Tungsten carbide is even better - buy a carbide sharpening tool when they're on sale at your hardware store.  

You can also buy soft magnesium rods to go on a lanyard with your firesteel and scraper so that you'll always have a source of waterproof tinder. See the paragraph on magnesium tinder below for how to make use of them.

Pros: thousands of lights; unlimited shelf life if protected from corrosion.

Cons: require two hands (well, you can do it with one hand and a foot, but it takes some coordination you might not be capable of it if injured); can break if dropped; impractical for lighting candles and lamps; corrosion can be a problem in salt environments - paint them with your wife's nail polish if you aren't going to use them for a while.

Pros: very tiny and compact, almost weightless - you can stash several of them in pockets and packs; can be used with one hand; work even after being immersed in water; unlimited shelf life if protected from corrosion.

Cons: won't ignite most natural tinders, so you'll need to bring along vaseline-impregnated cotton balls or buy more of the "Tinder-Quik" tabs that come with them; impractical for lighting candles and lamps; corrosion can be a problem in salt environments


Pros: can be used with one hand; unlimited shelf life if protected from corrosion.

Cons: bulky in your pocket; impractical for lighting candles and lamps; corrosion can be a problem in salt environments; fragile (the metal striker fell out of the plastic it was molded into).

Doan magnesium: these combine a small ferrocerium rod with a block of magnesium. They get a bad rap because people don't understand how to use them. Their advantage is that you always have a waterproof source of both sparks and tinder. Scrape a little pile of magnesium shavings into a depression (see the paragraph below about magnesium tinder), then strike sparks from the epoxied-on ferrocerium rod into the pile. The shavings will burn hot enough to ignite rubber from a tire if that's all you have. Don't waste your money on the knockoffs from Coughlans or China. The strikers of the former break off easily, and some of the latter aren't even magnesium - I think they're aluminum.

Pros: waterproof ferrocerium rod and waterproof tinder always available.

Cons: impractical for lighting candles and lamps; corrosion can be a problem in salt environments

Magnifying glass - Pros: never wears out; can be used with one hand; has multiple uses like reading fine print, identifying mushrooms, finding tiny slivers, etc.

Cons: only works in bright sun, impractical for lighting candles and lamps.

Of all the above, my favorite firestarters are Stormproof matches, Sparklites and Firesteels.

Sparklite says their lighters should last for "more than a thousand strikes". Let's assume a 50% marketing exaggeration just to be on the safe side, and call it 500. I'm sure that I've lit more than 500 fires with mine, and it's still working.

Firesteels of 1/4" diameter are advertised as lasting "up to 3,000 strikes". (Those of 3/8" diameter are advertised as lasting "up to 12,000".) Again, lets assume a conservative 50% BS factor, and call it 1,500. Let's further assume that it takes you an average of three strikes for a spark to catch, because sometimes they're difficult to aim. (Although after some practice, you should be able to ignite good tinder consistently with only one or two.) So conservatively figure 500 with those, too.

For comparison, here's what a 1/4" firesteel and a Sparklite look like next to 500 Storm Matches:

As of today, 500 REI Stormproof matches cost $65 and weigh 6.5 ounces. That's 13 cents per fire.

A Sparklite from costs $8, and for our purposes is weightless. That's less than two cents per fire from something that costs no effort to carry.

A heavier-duty aluminum Sparklite with an extra flint costs $15. Three cents per fire not even taking into account that it'll last longer.

A 1/4 inch diameter firesteel with a scraper from costs $7.60 and weighs one ounce. Less than two cents per fire.

A 3/8 inch diameter fire steel with a scraper from costs $14.50 and weighs two ounces. Using the same 50%-and-3-strikes math, that's less than one penny per fire.

I almost always have a 3/8" firesteel with a scraper in my pocket, on an orange paracord lanyard looped through a belt loop. There are extras in my vehicles. There's one hanging by my woodstove. There are Sparklites and Doan magnesium fire starters in my hunting coat and floatation vest. I used to keep all of the above plus a Blastmatch in my pockets when I was flying fighters and bush planes. There are Stormproof matches in waterproof containers in canoe duffles and cot organizers, and magnifying glasses in medical kits.

If a burning bush told me I could only have one fire starter, it'd be a 3/8" fire-steel on a paracord lanyard with a scraper and a rod of magnesium, all on an orange lanyard to make the kit more visible in the leaves. In addition to the advantages described above, they're just plain fun to use.

A discussion of fire starters isn't complete without a discussion of tinder. Translating sparks or embers into flames can be difficult. I really like the commercial tinders marketed under the name "Tinder-Quik" that come with Sparklites. They're made of cotton impregnated with beeswax, petroleum and silicone. Small, light, convenient, and they'll work even after a dunking. You can cut them in half to make them go further. Just fluff up an end and they'll catch the tiniest spark.

Cotton balls with a bit of petroleum jelly (not too much, just a tad) are my second choice. Stuff them into a section of a fat plastic straw by pulling them into an elongated shape and then poking them in with a stick. Seal the ends of the straw by holding them shut with pliers and melting with a flame. To use, just cut off one of the ends, pull a bit of cotton out and fluff it up. (That'll get petroleum jelly on your fingers, which is almost always a good thing outdoors - my fingers and lips get dry and cracked.)

Magnesium burns very, very hot, and is completely waterproof - you could swim ashore from a capsized canoe and then ignite a rubber boot with it if you had to. It can be frustrating to collect a small pile of shavings if you aren't patient or don't have the technique, though. Rest one end of the rod or block on something solid, in a shallow depression in a boulder or scooped out of the dirt, or in the punched-in crown of your hat on the ground. Scrape with the squared-off spine of your knife or your dedicated scraper for a few minutes until you have a pile more-or-less the diameter and thickness of a quarter, depending on what you intend to ignite with it. Making shavings doesn't take much pressure, just patience. Protect them from wind, they're so light that the slightest breeze will scatter them.

Natural tinders that work well for me are birch bark, Phragmite seed heads, thistledown, milkweed fluff, cedar bark, pine needles, grass, beech leaves that have hung on young trees through the winter, tinder fungus, cattail fluff, milkweed fluff, Old Man's Beard smeared with Balsam Fir pitch, and the insides of Oak leaf galls. As a general rule, anything you find on the ground will be too damp, even when the weather's dry, and any tinder that can be shredded should be. Sometimes wet tinders can be dried by carrying them between your inner and outer layers of clothing for a while. A single Phragmite seedhead with a single pinecone on top is all you need to quickly touch off a fire.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler (née Krzyżanowska, AKA Irena Sendlerowa, Nom de guerre Jolanta), 1910 – 2008, was a member of the Polish underground during WWII.

She worked for Warsaw's municipal department, and had a permit to enter the 16-block Ghetto cordoned off by the Germans to inspect sanitary conditions during a Typhus outbreak. She began smuggling babies and toddlers out, sometimes sedated and disguised as packages. Their names were recorded in coded form and buried in jars under an apple tree. The Resistance recruited her, and the smuggling accelerated.

In 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo. In prison she was interrogated repeatedly, but gave up nothing of value and continued to resist with small acts of sabotage, such as cutting holes in German uniforms when doing laundry. During a final torture session, her feet, legs and arms were broken and she was sentenced to death. A bribed guard added her name to the list of executed prisoners and left her in the woods. She lived in hiding for the remainder of the war. When it was over, she dug up the jars and tried to reunite the children with their relatives. There were 2,500 names in the jars, but almost no surviving families.

The post-war Communist government of Poland persecuted Irena because they were only aware of her involvement with the German army and not her efforts to save the children. Her family lived in poverty and public disgrace. Her children were expelled from the University.

A year before her death at age 98, she was considered for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, but it was awarded to Al Gore instead. She didn't seem to mind: "What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal."