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Out: rowdy summer bonfires, with house party guests spilling into your yard. In: outdoor fires with a few of your housemates or closest friends gathered around for warmth in their biggest puffers (or sleeping bags).
If you’re being safe and limiting your indoor interactions as much as possible, you’ve probably already realized that in a Michigan winter, a backyard fire is a pandemic gathering essential. If you haven’t broken out the fire pit yet, no worries. It’s not too late to get the fire started, and it is easy enough to pull off this week, even if you’ve never gone camping or aren’t really sure what kindling is.
To make a top-notch outdoor fire in your backyard, start with one important rule: It’s not a campfire! That makes your life easier: no foraging for sticks, getting it started with even littler sticks and huddling around in the cold for an hour while waiting for your fire to slowly get bigger and start producing heat. You’re going to make a fire that’s hot from the moment you light it and stays hot all night long.
Step one: Be safe!
Make sure that your backyard fire is both legal and safe. The rules vary depending on where you are; some jurisdictions require you to use a proper fire ring or pit, some allow fires only for cooking (keep those marshmallows handy) and some require a permit. Call your fire department or city hall, or read up on the relevant laws yourself at municode.com. (In Detroit, outdoor fires must be in a fire pit, three feet or less in diameter and located 10 feet away from flammable objects and property lines.) No matter what the rules say, always make sure small children, pets, gas cans, recycling bins, etc. are kept safely away from your fire.
Step two: Get your fire pit
If you don’t already have a fire pit, you’re in for a little more work or investment, but just think about the use you’re going to get out of it. If you’re really DIY savvy, you can make your own (one more reminder to follow local ordinances) — here’s the simplest guide we’ve seen, using materials that can mostly be scavenged, and a video how-to that promises you’ll spend under $60. If you decide to buy one instead, you can find fire pits under $60 from Wayfair, Home Depot and other retailers. Remember, the fire you’ll be making in it is the main attraction, so don’t feel like you need to get super fancy.
Step three: Use the right wood
The most common backyard fire mistake is using firewood that isn’t properly seasoned — that is to say, it hasn’t been dead, chopped and stacked in a well-ventilated area for at least a year. Wood that has recently been part of a tree will have too high of a moisture content — it will be harder to light, won’t burn as hot and will make too much smoke. This is not the time to dispose of that mulberry tree you chopped down in July! Go find some quality wood.
Seasoned logs should have small cracks visible (because the wood shrinks as the moisture evaporates), and should sound like a baseball bat when you knock them together. Even bundles sold at gas stations and convenience stores can be suspect, as they are often cut too recently, and the plastic wrap holds moisture in. Quality firewood is sold at landscape supply stores and home improvement stores — and often by the roadside in rural areas!
Scrap lumber, too, works well.
Using the right wood is going to elevate your fire and make it last longer. But if you’re broke or can’t get to the store, this is the rule that’s meant to be broken — we’ve all used random wood from last year’s renovation project, scavenged logs from a nearby lot or picked up whatever’s being sold wherever we bought a six-pack. No judgement.
But don’t use pressure-treated wood! (That’s the greenish stuff that you make decks and fences with.) It contains preservatives that are toxic when burned.
Step four: Build your fire structure
Forget the traditional teepee method. The log cabin technique provides more surface area, which means more heat, more quickly. Place two logs parallel to each other, then add your next two balanced across them, forming a hashtag shape. Keep adding additional levels, and work big to small. Large logs should be on the bottom, then middle-size logs, and then a row or two of two-by-fours. Top off your masterpiece with smaller sticks.
Get the initial structure as tall as you can make it without it toppling over. If you use up half of your firewood supply right at the beginning, that’s okay! The important thing is to keep yourself and your guests toasty and happy.
Step five: Put stuff in the middle
Loosely fill (don’t pack) the center of your hashtag/cabin structure with urban kindling: toilet paper rolls, bits of pizza boxes, filler from your latest package delivery, cardboard egg cartons from your recycling bin, candle wax if you have it and more small sticks. Place a fire starter in there as well — which you purchased ahead of time, because you aren’t camping! The Duraflame Firestart gets our vote for its convenient size and burnable wrapper; or, you can make your own.
Step six: Burn, baby, burn
Use a match or lighter to light the fire starter and cardboard bits. The top half of the log cabin will get going first, and then the fire will spread downward. Eventually, the structure will collapse in on itself — that’s when you start adding more wood, one log at a time. Keep the newly added logs elevated as much as you can to allow air to flow beneath them. You can do some architectural rehab by poking at the logs — carefully, sparingly — with a long stick or fireplace poker. This might be one of the most low-key satisfying parts of building your own fire, but you shouldn’t go overboard — when your logs and embers settle, you lose surface area. Try to adjust your logs by poking upward rather than downward.
Step seven: Admire your handiwork and get toasty
You’ve done it: started a crackling fire and, more importantly, made yourself a safe way to hang out (the big fire between you should help with maintaining social distance). Fix yourself and your guests some bourbon hot chocolate and enjoy.
Read more of Detour’s Detroit winter survival tips, or submit your own here.