Getting a fire going is a critical skill when you're in any kind of survival situation. Even if the weather is perfect, you'll eventually need a fire to stay warm, get dry, purify water, cook food, signal rescuers, or just for the psychological companionship offered by the friendly flickering flames on a dark and lonely night.
Somebody sent me a joke recently that went something like this: "Why is that that one spark can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box of matches to get a campfire going?" Good question. There are times when getting a fire started is truly difficult. Everything is damp and nothing will catch and hold a flame, much less a spark.
I was recently camping under those very conditions on a beach in the Pacific Northwest, where the air was full of mist and there wasn't a shred of dry tinder to be found. Oh, there were old dead grasses hiding beneath the live foliage, and we gathered bundles of that. And we scraped the inner bark of dead trees to create shavings that were as nearly dry as could be. But it was definitely going to be a challenge to get a spark from my favorite Swedish firesteel to make flames leap from this tinder.
Then I got lucky. On the driftwood-strewn beach at the edge of the forest was an old log that had once been part of somebody's fire. Or, who knows, maybe it was an ancient lightning strike victim that charred and died, eventually tumbling to the beach. It didn't matter how it got there, the important part was that it was charred. Anything that has once been charred will be a good candidate to catch and hold a spark, so I smiled as I knelt beside the old log and dug out some bits of charcoal.
I arranged the charred wood so I could strike a spark into it from my firesteel. On the third attempt, I saw a bright spark catch the edge of a bit of charcoal dust and hold for a couple seconds. Then it went out. At least it appeared to go out. I bent close and blew on the spot, and a glow appeared. I blew some more, and the glow began to grow and eat its way deeper into the charcoal. Now I knew we had something.
My son, Ryan, grabbed some of the dead grasses and bundled them tightly. We worked together, Ryan poking the bundle down against the growing coal, and me blowing. It wasn't long before we had smoke and the smell of burning wet grass. Not pleasant, and not fire, but it was promising. The tinder was still too damp to catch, but the coal was alive and well and doing it job of drying the tinder that was held tightly against the heat of the coal.
And then, suddenly a flame appeared and then died almost as quickly. Then it reappeared, and this time it stayed. Ryan looked every bit like an Olympic Torch bearer as he carried the flaming tinder bundle to our fire pit.
Under difficult conditions, we got a fire going by using nothing but the natural materials at hand, and a small firesteel to produce sparks. Under excellent conditions, you could spark directly into the tinder bundle and have a good chance of creating a fire, but under more challenging conditions you need to use every trick in the book. Knowing that charred wood or cloth will greatly enhance your ability to get a spark to catch and hold is a big advantage. Experienced mountainmen used to carry a bit of charred cloth as part of their fire-making kit, and this is the reason why.
Of course there are easier ways (Vaseline-laden cotton balls, etc.), but it's nice to have the confidence born of experience that you can get the job done when the going gets tough. Get out there and test yourself now and then. The time may come when the experience will stand you in good stead and keep you alive.