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Thu, Feb. 27

Wilderness Common Sense: Do I need a fire?

A fire isn’t always necessary if you become lost in Mohave County. But if you are in danger of hypothermia, then it’s wise to carry a flare to help start a fire even if your wood is snow-covered or wet. (Adobe image)

A fire isn’t always necessary if you become lost in Mohave County. But if you are in danger of hypothermia, then it’s wise to carry a flare to help start a fire even if your wood is snow-covered or wet. (Adobe image)

We’ve all heard of the need for a fire when in the mountains or desert – for warmth, keeping wild animals away and to give us a sense of comfort when lost. But do you really need a fire if you’re lost, stuck or broken down in Mohave County? It takes energy to collect firewood, to start a fire, to keep it going and to keep it contained. It’s very unlikely that wild animals would be a threat. The last grizzly bear in Arizona was killed in 1939 near Springerville in the White Mountains. Most mountain lions and bears that I’ve run into in Arizona were more afraid of me than I was of them so no need there.

Remember the 2002, Chediski fire in northeastern Arizona? It was started by a stranded quad runner that was trying to attract the attention of a news helicopter. I guess they succeeded in drawing attention to themselves but the Chediski and Rodeo fires became the largest wildfire in Arizona history. Do you really want that kind of notoriety for the sake of comfort?

If you become lost in Mohave County, focus on what you need to survive and not on what makes you feel comfortable. If you don’t need a fire to keep you from becoming hypothermic, save your energy. If you have the proper clothes for the season, you should be fine.

A shelter might be more important in keeping you dry or out of the snow. If you decide that you must have a fire for warmth or for signaling, be sure of the surroundings and the weather. Not that the wind ever blows in Mohave County but if you have a fire going and the wind kicks up and blows sparks into dry brush, you might be in more trouble than just being lost.

As part of your day-pack you should have at least two ways to start a fire. A basic fire-starting kit should include a Bic lighter and waterproof matches. In my pack I also carry a road flare. If I’m in a survival situation I don’t want creative ways to start fires like steel wool and a battery or a bow-drill. I want something that’ll start a fire even with wet wood. A road flare meets that need.

I usually take two flares. These are only used in survival situations where a fire can’t be started by any other way due to snow-covered or wet wood. A road flare is easily started, with the scratch point on the tip. Once lit and your fire is started, the flare can be put out and saved to start again. To put out the flare, push the burning end of the flare into a rock until it’s smothered. To start a second time takes more effort. Have some tinder to start and burn next to the end of the flare until it catches. That’s why I carry two.

If I must have a fire in the snow or soaked ground, I start by scraping away as much snow as I can then build a platform, about two-foot square, made of large-to-medium sized sticks. This keeps the fire off the snow or wet ground. Then I take the small- and medium-sized driest sticks and tinder and make a square log-cabin type pile of wood with an open area in the middle. That’s where I put the road flare. When lit, the flare burns like a torch shooting out of the end. Aim it at the medium sized sticks. It will burn very hot and long enough, about 15 minutes, to get even damp or wet wood to burn. As the fire burns, I push some of the coals to one side of the platform and then place wet wood over the coals to dry while keeping the rest of the fire at the other end of the platform for heat and making more coals. As the wood dries, I move it over to the fire end, move more coals to the drying end and add more damp wood to dry.

If the ground is dry, remove all combustible material from where the fire will be and be sure of the surroundings, including what’s above you. Strong winds can kick up at any time so have green branches to place over the fire to stop sparks from flying. The green branches are also good for making smoke in the event there is an aircraft in the area looking for you.

Keep the fire manageable – small rather than a large blaze. You can sit closer to a small fire for warmth, it uses less fuel, and it can be put out in the event the wind picks up.

Remember, most of the time in a survival situation in Mohave County, a fire is a luxury. You might want to have the fixings ready to light if needed, but save your energy and focus on staying alive.

If you have comments or want to share experiences, write me at

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