In his classic short story To Build a Fire, Jack London wrote of a man who picked the wrong spot for his campfire, a blunder that proved fatal. For most folks, poor fire-making skills will cost them only the respect of friends and family forced to eat cold, stiff marshmallows. But even that's a high price to pay when you're out trying to enjoy one of the great pleasures of Florida living, winter campfires. And there's no need for it, when all you need for a roaring blaze is dry wood, tinder, matches, a little instruction — and proper attention to safety.
The right spot
Campfires are like real estate — location, location, location is what's most important.
Most state parks and forests permit campfires in designated areas, i.e., fire pits, for good reason: to prevent the surrounding woods from catching on fire. These campfire circles are usually placed far from overhanging tree limbs and other vegetation that may ignite with an errant spark.
In campgrounds that don't have designated pits, yet still allow open fires, you can bring your own free-standing fireplace (available at most hardware stores from around $50). Or make your own by cutting the bottom off an old 50-gallon drum.
If your campsite does have a fire ring, clean out the old wood and ash before starting your fire. This will allow the air to circulate more freely beneath the wood. Make sure the ash is cold before shoveling it out or you will light the garbage can on fire.
Now that you have a clean canvas, it's time to create your masterpiece.
The right stuff
Most everybody starts with the same ingredients, wood and kindling. But what they do with it, now that's the art of the campfire.
Firewood falls into two basic categories, hardwood and softwood. Hardwoods, such as oak, are tougher to start, but burn longer. Coals of hardwoods make the best cooking fires. Softwoods, such as pine, burn faster and hotter. When dried and split into thin strips, pine makes a good fire starter. Ideally, you'd start with pine and switch to oak.
But first you have to get it lit. Small twigs, split pine, newspaper, cardboard, dried palmetto fronds, even Spanish moss, all work.
Space your smaller, thinner material at the center in a "teepee" shape with larger material around it. Make sure your structure has plenty of space for air to circulate. Once it's burning, gently fan or blow at the base of the fire until the larger material catches.
In a pinch, bring along some charcoal lighter fluid or fire paste to put on the wood to help it get going.
Right way, wrong way
Ask any veteran Boy Scout leader, and he will tell you there is no one "right way" to build a fire. It is the end result — smiling faces, warm bodies, no collateral damage — that counts.
But there is a wrong way to build a fire. Every year hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland are destroyed by wildfires. Before you make a campfire, check with park authorities to make sure one is allowed, given current conditions.
When wilderness camping, try to use an existing fire ring. On a barrier island, make your fire below the high-tide mark on the beach. Either way, practice good outdoor ethics and leave no trace that you've been there.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.