02/16/2011 09:42 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Start a Fire (Fast and Furious, and without Fuss)

We've all been there--either as individuals trying to start a fire, or worse, watching someone else trying to start a fire and not succeeding. There is the fussing, the prodding and poking, the elaborately shaped structures, and blowing and huffing and puffing. I could go on and on, but that's the point of this blog post, isn't it? Why go on and on when you can just get it done? That's the spirit! I will now share my secret of building a fire fast, furious, and without fuss. The secret is two words: Critical Mass.

In essence, there needs to be enough stuff to get a fire burning and keep it burning. Starting gradually may work in extreme circumstances, but if you've got what you need, then get it going right away. Here is my recipe:

1. Newspaper. You need about 4 pages. One page to crumple up lightly and point up into the flue to make sure the flue is open and to get the draft going (you'll light that piece first, after everything else is set up). Lightly crumple up the other three pieces and put them on the bottom.

2. Kindling. Next, use twigs and sticks from around your yard (if you have one). A handful or two will do the trick. If you don't have kindling, use cardboard pieces or other more-substantial-than-newspaper things. I keep a basket on my back porch, and we gather fallen branches all year long. They come in handy for campfires, grills, or winter fireplace fires. Just make sure they are dry and dead. Green wood won't burn.

3. Fatwood sticks. Some might think this cheating, but they work. My sister gave me a case a few years ago for Christmas, and I still have a lot left. I use three to add into the kindling, and between logs, to provide that extra Critical Mass to get the fire going. Fatwood sticks are basically wood coated in some sort of natural fat (you can get them at L.L. Bean). They catch quickly and burn well.

4. Logs. Three is just enough, four is better, and one is impossible! Again, think Critical Mass. You have to have enough to keep the fire burning, and I have found four is perfect. As the logs start to burn, add more to always keep about four going at a time. They don't need to be stacked in any fancy fashion. But in general, remember that they like to have a bit of air between them. Again, make sure they are dry before you use them.

5. Matches (duh!). After you have all the pieces in place, light the paper that's sticking up into the chimney first (again, to make sure the flue is open, and to get a draft going in the right direction). If that goes well, light the newspaper at the bottom and sit back, get comfortable, and enjoy the fire.

See?! No poking, prodding, huffing, puffing, fussing, or agony of defeat. Just a warm fire that will keep on burning as long as you throw another log on it every once in a while.

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