I had no idea how lost an art making and using a fire was becoming until one of my friends was at an overnight camp in the woods with a group of local Druids. One of them tried to start the fire by draping a sheet of newspaper over a log and setting light to it. A senior member of the group, she seemed very surprised when all that happened was the paper burnt without even singing the log. She was about to try again – this time using two sheets of newspaper – when my friend stepped in and suggested that she move the site of the fire away from overhanging trees and nearby undergrowth before starting again with smaller twigs and some newspaper crumpled into balls.
He helped the group gather a large pile of small twigs and branches and went back slightly away from the main camp to finish pitching his tent. When he came back there was a blazing fire of small twigs that was rapidly dwindling with no sign of any larger logs, no one was watching the fire, and a clutter of nearby synthetic material clothes and other equipment by it was melting into interesting shapes. He used many, many, rude words to describe the situation as he rescued what he could before getting the Druids out of their tents.
By this time the fire had gone out and it quickly became apparent that not one of the Druid Grove had the first idea about how to make and manage a new one. So what was meant to be a retreat and meditation weekend quickly became a two-day woodcraft workshop – starting with basic fire making and maintenance.
Being able to make and control fire has always been considered one of the key steps in human progress. With it food could be cooked, both preserving and making it easier to eat, it provided light, heat and protection from predatory animals. For thousands of years most people knew how to light a fire, keep it going, and put it out safely. But in the last century this art has died out as central heating, and gas/electric ovens began to take over which were less messy and dangerous. This has lead to several generations now whose closest connection to fire has been lighting a barbeque – and these days many of these don’t actually use wood or wood charcoal.
As with most things preparation is the key to success. Siteing, constructing, lighting, managing and dispersing are all important as are apparently inconsequential things such as what to wear. The last is particularly important with today’s artificial fibres, most of which are highly flammable. Many burn related admissions to hospital in the summer are caused by clothes catching fire from fires and barbeques. This is the practical reason behind armed forces such as the Royal Navy having cotton clothing that chars when heated rather than melting into a superhot liquid and bursting into fire. Also it is the safety reason why 20th century Witches worked skyclad (naked) – no clothes to catch fire and a greater sensitivity to safety around exposed flames.
Attention to setting up the site for the fire correctly is the basis for effective risk management and using it for maximum benefit. It should be well away from anything flammable or inflammable - both of which mean “can be set on fire”* - including undergrowth, overhanging branches and, in some instances the ground itself. The latter is particularly true in the case of peat or coniferous forest where the organic and/or resin content of the ground can cause any sparks to smoulder and expand for weeks until a breeze fans them into a fire. This goes double during droughts or anywhere with a ‘dry season’. In these sorts of areas if you absolutely need to light a fire make it on a non-flammable base such as a layer of bricks or safe rocks.
Making a fire in a rock-lined firepit is one of the most traditional ways of keeping a fire from damaging surroundings and using the heated rocks for cooking and heating. However, they must be particular types of rocks, most volcanic rocks with the exception of pumice are usually ok, as are most rocks from dry stream beds. Anything damp, especially damp and porous, is a non-starter. This is because any moisture in them turns to steam, expands, and can cause an explosion. Rocks on the beach, or freshly prised out of frozen ground, are equally dangerous due to their outer layer heating up faster than the cold inside. Explosions from these rocks can be particularly powerful with a fist-sized rock going off like a hand-grenade resulting in lots of small hot shrapnel ideal for causing eye injuries.
If you want to make a firepit the best thing to do is to proceed as though you were setting up an ordinary fire. Clear the area, dig the hole and line it with stones (optional), gather the kindling, twigs, branches and logs. Set up the safety precautions such as buckets of water or sand. Alexandrian Witches traditionally soaked a large tarpaulin or canvas in the nearest body of water and placed it folded near the fire so that it could be quickly deployed to smother it, or any other secondary ignition, should the need arise.
Then, and only then, construct the fire. Size, purpose and shape all play a part in this. Experience has taught me that smaller is better, less time to build, get going, and maintain as well as needing less fuel. A big fire may look impressive but gets through a lot of wood and, when it is cold, you bake on the side facing the fire but freeze on the other. Also the bigger the fire the greater the chances mishaps. Fires laid in a conical pattern with the tinder and small twigs in the centre with larger logs on the outside are best for a fire that only needs to burn for a few hours.
For a longer lasting fire place large logs in a square or flat pyramid shape with the kindling and twigs+branches inside finishing off with a large log across the top from corner to corner or from side to side. The idea being that by the time the inner fuel is consumed the heavy logs will be alight and burn for a long time turning to cinders useful for cooking, heating, pyromancy, and working with Fire elementals. If the fire is raked or shaped into a keyhole shape then the small area can be used for mundane tasks and the larger area for magickal works or vice versa.
Appoint a “Fire Minder” either for the duration of the camp, or on a rota basis. A fire should always be under the supervision of at least one person who knows what they are doing. They have complete control over that aspect of the camp and anyone doing anything dangerous gets one warning, then removed either from the vicinity of the fire or the entire camp. It may sound harsh but really keeps accidents to a minimum.
Other things you can do to ensure that risks of working with fire are kept to a minimum are:
• Keep a first aid kit – and people who know how to use it – close at hand.
• If you are using stones in a firepit test them in a small fire first while watching at a distance wearing safety goggles
• When you extinguish the fire make sure it is completely out- smothering it with earth is the best way. Avoid throwing water on it as it can have the same explosive effect as using damp or cold stones
• Before leaving make sure the cinders and coal are completely cold to avoid injury to others or the fire re-starting.
By following the guidelines above you can be sure of a safe and productive use of fire in camp and ritual.
.*. The confusion comes from people thinking that the first bit of the word “in” of inflammable is the Latin negative prefix “in” used in words such as “incorrect”. However it is really a different part of grammar called a presupposition