We think about fire all the time, all year long. Heat, cooking, light, bug deterrent, danger. Thank goodness for Prometheus!
Living in a log cabin in the woods, off road and plumbing system, means that we need to be particularly careful about fires. There is no such thing as home insurance in such a situation! Alaska wildfires ANNUALLY burn about one MILLION acres. Last year, there were 495 wildfires in the state. Most of these are in the interior, near Fairbanks, started by lightning or humans and fueled by high winds.
Below are examples of our fire prevention, fire as bug deterrent, and starting a fire at -10 below F.
Fire prevention is up to us. Log homes are actually more fire resistant than one might think, because they offer one massive surface of wood that is hard to ignite unless there is a lot of tinder under it or around it, and we have metal roofs on all of our buildings. Our fire prevention started with clearing a fire break of at least 30 feet in all directions of the main cabin. This required chopping down three lovely birch trees too close to the cabin, but birches burn rapidly, even when wet; the thin leaves and the loose ends of its papery bark catch quickly. Aging birch trees tend to rot up the middle, too, which often isn’t obvious until a huge limb comes crashing down in the wind – another reason to keep them a certain distance from the cabin. The second component of fire safety is a strong lake pump and a long, heavy, wide hose for fire suppression as far as it can reach. The third component is attention to any fires we do build. For example, we positioned the two burn barrels (a metal 55 gallon gasoline can cut in half and perforated) out back so that we can keep an eye on them through the kitchen window, if we aren’t outside actively monitoring it, and we tend to keep those fires low anyway. The bonfire location is a fire pit dug in the front yard below wind level and surfaced with rocks. (Since the land is so peaty, fires can spread underground, and even with the rocks, we’ve seen smoldering spots in the yard, where fire has traveled along an underground root or something.) Naturally, I lug 8 gallon jugs of water to each fire location.
I won’t talk about light and cooking, which are obvious but I will tell you about how difficult it is to start a fire at -10 degrees F. I felt like a Jack London character. Last winter, we flew in about 4 pm and landed on the frozen lake. The snow was level with the front porch, so about 5 feet deep. Our full time neighbor had run a snow machine up the hill near our cabin which hardened into an easy path and saved us from punching through the soft snow all the way up from the lake. As it was, my husband and I labored the last several yards, flailing up to our knees in snow to get to the cabin, where he retrieved snow shoes and a plastic sled for hauling up supplies. My job was to start the fire inside.
I pulled the bear bar out of its clips and stepped carefully over the spiky bear mat (plywood with nails sticking up). The cabin was dark from the bear shutters covering all the downstairs windows. I climbed upstairs and opened the curtains so the light could filter down the stairwell to illuminate my work at the stove. The cabin was fully as cold as outdoors, -10 degrees, as a thermometer showed all too well. Previously, I had laid a fire for rapid ignition. It included one of those quick-light flammable bars that I thought would start a fast first fire, but I soon discovered that, except for the paper wrapping, it doesn’t work when frozen solid. So I needed to start the fire the old fashioned way. I couldn’t feel the matches through my gloves, but when I took them off my hands got so cold and shaky I couldn’t feel them anyway, and broke several in succession. The more serious impediment though, was that the cold air was so dense that the match barely lit. It glowed blue and went out. It couldn’t light the tinder I had on hand.
After a few more tries I realized that my first goal was not to start a fire. It was to warm the metal interior of the woodstove enough to get the air to rise through the pipe. That’s all. So I took all the kindling out of the wood stove and grabbed the lightest flammable item I could find - a roll of toilet paper. I tore off a few sheets and these burned so fast they turned to ash before I could see any heat trail at all. I wadded up a larger pile. The edge glowed orange but that was it. I was starting to get panicky in the dark and the cold. The next match caught and I blew lightly, hoping fervently that the fire would spread across the rumpled surface. Success! I slowly added the slimmest birch bark and cardboard on hand, as well as slips of newspapers so as not to smother the feeble fire. This gentle treatment required suppressing every instinct to load up the interior with all flammable items within reach. The interior metal warmed up in its own sweet time and finally the flames expanded from mere glows to start to rise and grow. I had to baby this fire much more than I expected, but I was highly motivated to do so, thus accomplishing very few of the tasks intended for the two remaining hours of daylight. By 6 pm, the cabin had warmed up 30 degrees ... to a not so balmy +20 degrees. We loaded up the woodstove and left, hiking over to our neighbor’s warm, cozy cabin, for a bowl of hot chili we welcomed as much as they enjoyed a micro-brew Bryan brought from Anchorage. We looked forward to returning to a cabin warmed up another 30 degrees for a temperate night but that was not to be. Upon return, we found that we had overloaded the stove with big pieces and the fire had gone out! Dismayed, we carefully rebuilt it and crawled into a mighty cold bed, wearing several layers of clothes. Bryan braved the cold and nursed the fire along several times during the night. Interior temperature the next morning was in the low 50s.
Because this was a tough experience, you can imagine I have what I hope is a better plan in place for this winter’s arrival. For one thing, we will arrive earlier in the day and I have the screw driver handy to take the bear shutter off the south facing picture window for light. Trying to start the fire in the dark as well as the cold contributed to my anxiousness, I think. Besides if the fire takes as many hours to warm the cabin, at least I can keep warm with daylight exertions. We also bought a little propane powered space heater. This will warm my hands while I endeavor to warm up the stove. And of course, I have a pile of flimsy tinder, like toilet paper and newspapers ready for my arrival, followed by a more appropriate starter set of slim kindling and branches. I’ve also ordered double layered gloves: mittens whose "tops" you can "flip" back to reveal fingertip less gloves, to keep my hands warm while working with fire building supplies.
This experience made me appreciate how vulnerable we are and to empathize more with the daily efforts of prior generations and many millions of people now to ensure such basics as heat, light, and cooking. it also increases my pleasure and confidence when I lay a good fire I can start with one match and one piece of birch bark.