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Providing for the basics part 5: fire

In the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake, two men cook breakfast over an open fire.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake, two men cook breakfast over an open fire.
by Martin Hunter/Getty Images

In a wilderness survival situation, the importance of fire cannot be underestimated, but in urban survival, fire is tempered by its inherent dangers and the relative accessibility of viable and safer alternatives. For these reasons, fire falls to number six in our list of basic needs.

6. Fire. While fire is an essential tool for wilderness survival, the urban survivor must treat fire with extreme caution. While it can perform many useful tasks for a survivor, some of the reasons fire is so valuable in the wild are the same reasons that fire must be handled with extreme caution by the urban survivor.

While a large fire may keep you from getting hypothermia in the mountains, anything larger than a small cooking fire could burn down your shelter in an urban scenario. Likewise, while the sight of fire often keeps many four legged predators at bay, the light from a fire may attract two legged predators in an urban survival situation where law and order have disappeared along with the electrical grid.

In an urban environment, there are often viable alternatives to making a conventional campfire if the survivor is savvy enough to do a little preparation. A camp stove works just like a gas stove but runs off portable propane canisters or camp fuel. These devices can be as large or as small as you want them. A stove that runs on chafing fuel can be purchased or improvised. If these are not available, a small fire is your next best option.

Fires should only be built outdoors in areas with good ventilation free of flammable surroundings. Never build a fire indoors! If the flames don’t burn your shelter down, the carbon monoxide produced by the fire just might kill everyone in the room before anyone knows anything is wrong.

Forget rubbing two sticks together. This is urban survival. Before an emergency hits, buy an assortment of matches and lighters. They're cheap and worth their weight in gold when the grid goes down. If you forgot to stockpile matches, rub some steel wool with a 9 volt battery or just use the steel to complete the circuit of any kind of battery. It will get hot enough to ignite tender in seconds.

If you have a grill or smoker, you already have a ready made off the grid cooker. Buy the biggest bag of charcoal you can, put it in a plastic bag to keep it from getting waterlogged, stash it somewhere in your home and forget about it until you need it. If your grill runs out of gas, remove the lava rocks and fill it with charcoal, wood or newspaper as needed. An expedient stove can be made in minutes from a large coffee can (#10 can) and burns whatever is at hand. If you have nothing else, put a stew pot onto a non flammable surface like a brick patio and build a fire inside. If you run out of charcoal and can’t find any wood, roll old newspapers tightly and secure with wire. These paper “logs” will burn for a remarkably long amount of time; long enough to cook a few hot dogs at least.

In my last article, I promised to talk about treating water by boiling. So, now that we have fire, we can boil water. Untreated water should be boiled at a roaring boil for one minute at sea level and one minute longer for every hundred feet in altitude above sea level. To answer your next question, Birmingham is 644 feet above sea level but it won’t hurt to let it boil for an even ten minutes just to be sure. Please note that boiling will kill most bacterium and parasites but will not remove heavy metals or radiation. After boiling, pour the boiled water between two containers a few times. This will get some oxygen back into it and improve the taste. Better yet, add a flavored drink mix like Gatorade.

Next time, we will look at how to get something to eat after the grid has gone down.

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