The Red Flower

Fire is, without a doubt, humanity’s oldest invention and its greatest friend; to many, the fundamental example what separates us from other animals. The abilities to keep warm through the coldest nights and harshest winters, to scare away predators by harnessing this strange force of nature, and to cook a joint of meat because screw it, it tastes better that way, are incredibly valuable ones, and they have seen us through many a tough moment. Over the centuries, fire in one form or another has been used for everything from being a weapon of war to furthering science, and very grateful we are for it too.

However, whilst the social history of fire is interesting, if I were to do a post on it then you dear readers would be faced with 1000 words of rather repetitive and somewhat boring myergh (technical term), so instead I thought I would take this opportunity to resort to my other old friend in these matters: science, as well as a few things learned from several years of very casual outdoorsmanship.

Fire is the natural product of any sufficiently exothermic reaction (ie one that gives out heat, rather than taking it in). These reactions can be of any type, but since fire can only form in air most of such reactions we are familiar with tend to be oxidation reactions; oxygen from the air bonding chemically with the substance in question (although there are exceptions;  a sample of potassium placed in water will float on the top and react with the water itself, become surrounded surrounded by a lilac flame sufficiently hot to melt it, and start fizzing violently and pushing itself around the container. A larger dose of potassium, or a more reactive alkali metal such as rubidium, will explode). The emission of heat causes a relatively gentle warming effect for the immediate area, but close to the site of the reaction itself a very large amount of heat is emitted in a small area. This excites the molecules of air close to the reaction and causes them to vibrate violently, emitting photons of electromagnetic radiation as they do so in the form of heat & light (among other things). These photons cause the air to glow brightly, creating the visible flame we can see; this large amount of thermal energy also ionises a lot of atoms and molecules in the area of the flame, meaning that a flame has a slight charge and is more conductive than the surrounding air. Because of this, flame probes are sometimes used to get rid of the excess charge in sensitive electromagnetic experiments, and flamethrowers can be made to fire lightning. Most often the glowing flame results in the characteristic reddy/orange colour of fire, but some reactions, such as the potassium one mentioned, cause them to emit radiation of other frequencies for a variety of reasons (chief among them the temperature of the flame and the spectral properties of the material in question), causing the flames to be of different colours, whilst a white-hot area of a fire is so hot that the molecules don’t care what frequency the photons they’re emitting are at so long as they can get rid of the things fast enough. Thus, light of all wavelengths gets emitted, and we see white light. The flickery nature of a flame is generally caused by the excited hot air moving about rapidly, until it gets far enough away from the source of heat to cool down and stop glowing; this process happens all the time with hundreds of packets of hot air, causing them to flicker back and forth.

However, we must remember that fires do not just give out heat, but must take some in too. This is to do with the way the chemical reaction to generate the heat in question works; the process requires the bonds between atoms to be broken, which uses up energy, before they can be reformed into a different pattern to release energy, and the energy needed to break the bonds and get the reaction going is known as the activation energy. Getting the molecules of the stuff you’re trying to react to the activation energy is the really hard part of lighting a fire, and different reactions (involving the burning of different stuff) have different activation energies, and thus different ‘ignition temperatures’ for the materials involved. Paper, for example, famously has an ignition temperature of 451 Fahrenheit (which means, incidentally, that you can cook with it if you’re sufficiently careful and not in a hurry to eat), whilst wood’s is only a little higher at around 300 degrees centigrade, both of which are less than that of a spark or flame. However, we must remember that neither fuel will ignite if it is wet, as water is not a fuel that can be burnt, meaning that it often takes a while to dry wood out sufficiently for it to catch, and that big, solid blocks of wood take quite a bit of energy to heat up.

From all of this information we can extrapolate the first rule that everybody learns about firelighting; that in order to catch a fire needs air, dry fuel and heat (the air provides the oxygen, the fuel the stuff it reacts with and the heat the activation energy). When one of these is lacking, one must make up for it by providing an excess of at least one of the other two, whilst remembering not to let the provision of the other ingredients suffer; it does no good, for example, to throw tons of fuel onto a new, small fire since it will snuff out its access to the air and put the fire out. Whilst fuel and air are usually relatively easy to come by when starting a fire, heat is always the tricky thing; matches are short lived, sparks even more so, and the fact that most of your fuel is likely to be damp makes the job even harder.

Provision of heat is also the main reason behind all of our classical methods of putting a fire out; covering it with cold water cuts it off from both heat and oxygen, and whilst blowing on a fire will provide it with more oxygen, it will also blow away the warm air close to the fire and replace it with cold, causing small flames like candles to be snuffed out (it is for this reason that a fire should be blown on very gently if you are trying to get it to catch and also why doing so will cause the flames, which are caused by hot air remember, to disappear but the embers to glow more brightly and burn with renewed vigour once you have stopped blowing).  Once a fire has sufficient heat, it is almost impossible to put out and blowing on it will only provide it with more oxygen and cause it to burn faster, as was ably demonstrated during the Great Fire of London. I myself have once, with a few friends, laid a fire that burned for 11 hours straight; many times it was reduced to a few humble embers, but it was so hot that all we had to do was throw another log on it and it would instantly begin to burn again. When the time came to put it out, it took half an hour for the embers to dim their glow.


The almost slightly actually not quite triumphant return

Hello to all who may be listening- I have returned to my little corner of the blogoverse! My time off has given me, among other things, a lot of time to muse upon potential topics for me to cover in the coming weeks (in part due to the fact that I have been watching way too much TV), but to begin I thought I might wander away from my normal format. Rather than an essay, here’s a story idea I’ve been toying with for a while- for a laugh more than anything else. Brownie points to whoever can guess the setting before the end.

Jake sprinted forward as the shockwave from the explosion hit him.

He had known the chopper was coming down- it always did- but an untimely bit of suppressing fire had kept in him his spot for a moment too long. The chest-high wall behind which he had been crouched mere seconds before was now smothered in a heap of burning, twisted metal and, somewhere amidst the wreckage, the corpse of some poor pilot. Jake would have felt sympathy for him, had all his thought not currently been occupied with the ball of flame and shrapnel currently flying towards him. One slug of metal caught him hard in the back, pitching him forward with a sharp cry of agonising pain. He lay there, face buried in the dust, his eyes swimming. Everything was blurred, out of focus- droplets of sweat and blood clouding his vision. His ears seemed to slowly switch off, the once crystal-clear noises of the battlefield now seeming dull and quiet, like listening through cotton wool. He was very aware of his breathing, taking short, sharp, gasping breaths, as if determined to savour each if it were to prove his last. The world seemed distant now, his world consumed by the pain of his back. The edges of his sight were closing in, as if he were staring down a tunnel, his peripheral vision reduced to near blackness. He was close to unconsciousness.

Suddenly, a harsh rattling sound yanked his senses back into reality. The noise and chaos of the battle returned into sharp focus, and Jake wished they hadn’t- the sudden assault on his ears sent almost sent his brain into shock after the momentary lull. He was lucky to be alive, and knew it. Had he been a nanosecond slower, then the sound of the explosion might have been the last he heard. Jake’s instincts as a soldier quickly returned to the fore; he flicked his head round to his right, ignoring the crick in his neck, and was faced with a wall of concrete. Good- another wall. That was why he wasn’t a colander of bullet holes right now.

Jake gave himself a few seconds to recover. Despite the ferocity of the explosion and his proximity to it, he seemed to have fared remarkably well- a testament, no doubt, to the human body’s almost superhuman resilience and ability to recover in times of crisis. In a but a few short moments, it had recovered almost completely, and Jake was able to pull himself up into a crouch without too much difficulty. Almost instinctively, he pulled his weapon up to his shoulder. ACR, standard army issue. Not the best, but it was resilient and a damn sight better than the AK’s the terrorists used.

As if reading his thoughts, the sound of sub-machine gun fire split the air near his head once again. Jake dipped his head, and cautiously peered around the edge of his wall. Two obviously Middle Eastern men, heads draped in simple red turbans, were crouched behind another wall a few metres in front of him, both holding weapons perched over the wall. Jake would have giggled at the blatant stereotype had one of the men not immediately spotted him, jumped out from behind his cover, and sprinted towards him. Big mistake. In one fluid movement, Jake turned his body to face his attacker and brought his gun up to his eye. For the briefest of moments, a red dot sat square on his target’s head. A long burst of fire later, and he was down, dead before he hit the floor. Boom, headshot.

The other man, perhaps slightly in fear after what had happened to his comrade, seemed more cautious. After a short while, Jake realised that he would be quite happy sitting behind his wall and firing bursts at regular intervals, meaning Jake would have to go on the offensive in order to reach his objective. However, he did not favour a frontal assault- risky at the best of times, employing one against an armed, aware opponent across a 15-metre stretch of open ground with no  support was verging on suicidal. But, there was more than one way to skin a cat…

Jake’s vision changed. Somehow, he seemed to visualise himself in his field of view, as if suddenly in the third person. Himself, pressed against the wall, his aggressor, ducked below his barricade in between bursts. Slowly, Jake poked the nose of his weapon around the edge of the barricade, waiting. His opponent popped up, and began another burst, but Jake was ready. His gun aligned itself with his target almost of its own accord, as if guided by some benevolent computer rather than Jake’s hand. One deadly burst of fire later, and the other man was slumped over the barrier.

Shaking himself, Jake’s vision restored itself and he cast a quick glance around to check his position. To his left rear lay the still-smouldering remains of the helicopter, forming just another part of the landscape of destruction. Around half a mile back lay the drop zone, where Jake’s team had arrived a short while ago. The battle was meant to be just over a small suspected weapons facility stuck in the middle of an otherwise empty desert, but it was clear from the number of people defending it that it was a far more important target than the top brass had envisaged. Artillery fire had forced Jake to find cover in a crashed, but still surprisingly intact, aircraft, and he had become separated from the rest of his team, hemmed into a single alleyway of death by walls of debris, wreckage and barbed wire. If it hadn’t been for the concrete walls providing cover, Jake very much doubted he’d be alive. Still, he was close now- the compound lay ahead.

After a final check that there were no hidden gunmen waiting for a pot-shot, Jake tucked his weapon into his belly and sprinted towards the recently-vacated barrier. As he passed the body of the man who’d run at him, something caught Jake’s eye. Not the corpse itself, but the weapon lying next to it. Stubby-nosed, with a short barrel and big stock, the weapon was obviously a shotgun, and Jake had been in enough firefights to attest to the power of the version the terrorists used. Unfortunately, he only had space to carry two weapons… but what the hell, HQ could cover the cost of one missing weapon.

As he swept by the body, Jake’s free left hand reached down to the holster on his leg and flicked out a standard-issue army handgun. Whilst manoeuvrable and quick to aim, they were no match for the shotgun for clearing out a room, and Jake’s was dropped by the corpse. He then used the same hand to grab the shotgun and, still running, slipped it into the now-vacated holster. The holster itself was a masterpiece of design- intuitive to use and allowing for quick storing & readying of weapons, Jake had seen it take weapons ranging from pistols to RPGs, and had never seen one lose its grip on a weapon, even when hanging from a rock face. Not that the design mattered excessively- it made staying alive easier, and that was all he cared about.

As he skidded in behind the barrier, and tried desperately to ignore the smell of the corpse draped over it next to him, Jake surveyed the scene ahead of him. Around 20 metres away, a doorway lay open, leading into the main compound. Judging by the view through both it and the window next to it, the room appeared to be deserted. But Jake knew better- that room would always have someone in it to guard against overly cocky intruders. Quickly switching weapons, the shotgun’s power more use than the assault rifle’s accuracy in this situation, Jake charged towards the door, weapon at the ready. As expected, another terrorist was seated at a table within the small room, but before he could reach for his weapon Jake had emptied two shells into his chest. Satisfied that he was out of the picture, Jake readied himself, and moved to the next doorway, before stealing a glance down it.

The corridor ahead appeared deserted. Plain, ugly concrete walls decorated with wires and seemingly pointless control panels were all that greeted him. He stepped through and proceeded cautiously, keeping his weapon at the ready. Reaching the first door, Jake bodily booted it down and was inside in an instant. Nothing- just an empty desk and a few papers. Nothing important- at least, nothing related to the mission in any case.

The next door yielded a similar result, but the third, at the end of the corridor, was far more interesting. It was what looked like a large canteen area, tables and chairs scattered about the place and several on their sides. However, more of a pressing concern was the four terrorists currently occupying the space.

Jake leapt forward, just about avoiding the streams of bullets erupting from the terrorist’s assault rifles as he skidded behind an upturned table. He turned quickly, and saw another man, previously been hidden behind the door. Jake reacted first, and unloaded another shot into him- the terrorist collapsed, limp and lifeless. Jake swung back around to see a retreating back as another enemy made for the safety of a dividing wall- another shot, and he too was down.

Jake quickly surveyed the scene in front of him- of the two remaining men, one had taken refuge behind another table and one was currently shooting from a window onto another man down below. He had to move fast- if he delayed then whoever was on the ground could be killed, which would free up another gun to train on him. Jake ran out from behind his cover and immediately launched another shot at the terrorist’s hiding place. It was as much for a distraction as anything else, but he was surprised that the wooden table held so well. Running an angled line off to his left, Jake dodged around the side of the table and, before his adversary could so much as squeeze a trigger, unloaded a slug into him that sent his body collapsing into the floor. As he leapt over the corpse, a small part of Jake idly wondered why he hadn’t moved the table.

It didn’t matter though- he was on the last man. He was trying to bring his rifle round to face Jake, but he stood no chance of getting there in time- Jake’s shotgun already had him in its sights. He squeezed the trigger.

*Click*. Out of ammo.

“Oh f-“

Suddenly, vision went to third person again as Jake’s limp corpse was flung backwards by the force of a clip of bullets  slamming into his chest. He fell back onto the floor, arms loose like a rag doll. Everything faded to black.

“DAMMIT”, screamed Jake in frustration as the kill cam replayed his failure. For a moment, he considered throwing his controller at the wall- he’d been playing for a couple of hours already now, and the weather looked pretty nice outside. Well, for a moment, before the obsession returned and he settled down for another crack at this b*stard of a mission.

-Yeah, sorry, I don’t play FPS’s, so I may be a bit out with the specifics here. Hope you enjoyed it anyway, even considering that this is twice as long as the average post.