I’ve Seen Fire and I’ve Seen It Made in the Rain

Posted by Kevin Estela on Aug 23rd 2023

This week’s blog is all about my students and the conditions they faced while training in Granite Falls, WA. When I scheduled a 2-day survival course in the Pacific Northwest, I knew there was going to be rain and I knew the conditions were going to be wet and challenging on many levels. The last time I trained in WA state was when I taught a private class in Bellingham in 2014. I love the area and it is gorgeous but it is also not to be underestimated. Annual precipitation in Granite Falls is 55 inches compared to rainy Seattle’s at 39. It takes a special kind of student to come out and train there when the weather is in the mid-30s and tops out in the low 40s. The course absolutely challenged me as an instructor and my students in accomplishing the basics like fire starting. After an initial interest inventory, it was clear many wanted to focus on fire and learn the basics of dealing with the rainy conditions that never really let up. Through hardship, they succeeded many times and picked up these pointers for wet-weather fire starting.

Remove Bark

During fire prep, it is common to collect tinder, kindling, small fuel, and progressively larger logs. In the PNW rainforest, the smallest of twigs get saturated and are not quick to light. Students found out that the bark that surrounds the dry wood inside acts like a sponge. They learned just like they can use the spine of a knife blade to scrape a ferro rod, they can scrape off the soft saturated bark and feather the dry wood underneath. Fire prep takes time and this step adds time to the process. All the extra time taken to ensure you have the best fuel pays off though. All that moisture, left on the smaller sticks, makes the fire smoke and reduces the heat the fire will generate. Removed, the twigs caught faster and built up enough heat to dry out sticks the next size up in the progression. In short time, the students, working together, adopted this practice and formed a human assembly line to process wood before adding it to the fire prep pile.

Tinder is King
Along for the ride and serving as my AI, Jarrod MacEachern. Jarrod is a former infantry soldier and a dedicated and well-studied bush crafter. Jarrod lives only a few hours away and he knows the area we trained in along with the natural tinders that can be found off the land. Jarrod showed the ways to harvest cedar bark and how to locate fatwood. Students worked from the best tinder option (Petroleum Cotton Balls) to fatwood and then feather sticks with mixed results based on their knife-handling skills. In really wet weather, tinder is used to dry out kindling and the fire builds in size and intensity. I described it to the students as a careful balance of heat, fuel, and air that looks like a well-choreographed routine between…get this…ice skaters. I don’t know why that came to mind but it worked to drive the point home even if my students looked at me funny. If students weren’t carrying tinder before the class, they definitely found places to tuck it after.

Wooden Rain Protection

The first fire the class made was out in the open and unprotected. As the weekend instruction carried on, they learned little nuances about making fires more protected from the environment. They learned to shield the initial flame of a lighter or match using their clothing and they also saw how building a log cabin fire structure with substantial logs, even if they were waterlogged, worked to trap in the heat and burn the fuel more like a wood stove with a chimney than an open fire. The students learned that tipi fire is an effective fast-burning fire and as the rain continued to pour down on them, they saw how a larger more robust tipi creates a roof to build a fire underneath. Even if the exterior of the wood frame got wet, the wood on the inside continued to burn.

Don’t Give Up
Perhaps the most important lesson in making a fire in the PNW rain is to never give up. Some students attempted, weren’t successful, attempted again, weren’t successful, and attempted again and finally built a fire on the third try. A group of students recognized the fire-making process took them 45 minutes as a team and then realized how much harder it would be if they were alone. Building a fire in the rain is a lesson in grit. When the students learned they could build a fire once, they knew they could do it a second time and a third. During the section of the course when students built natural shelters, they built fires for each adding to the value of their shelter. When students hiked to the river for a lesson on water treatment, they built a fire on the riverbank during a persistent drizzle and a lot of moisture in the air. The hardest fire they built was the first fire and there are those of you reading this who may never attempt to build a fire in the rain. I encourage you to try and exercise some willingness. It will give you a lesson in humility and open your eyes to the importance of resilience.

The Fire Continues…

Before we left Greg Anderson’s property, we used the fire and ferns to create a smoke generator that produced the best thick plumes of smoke I’ve ever seen. We extinguished what remained of the fire and talked about the next training event I want to bring to the area, land navigation. Jarrod is going to become the PNW survival instructor for Fieldcraft and after the demonstration of skills he put on, there’s no doubt the students are in good hands. Even though the weather wasn’t the greatest, it was what we endured together. Bonds are made with shared hardship and we laughed and learned together in the cold and wet PNW rainforest. I have no doubt we’ll return to that training site and I know there is still so much to cover. Even though we shared about 20 hours of instruction time together, that barely scratches the surface of bushcraft and survival training. Based on the number of follow-up Emails and messages from students, I know the fire continues inside. No amount of rain and cold will put that out.