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Frye: PET balls are great for fires

Bob Frye
| Saturday, March 21, 2015, 8:48 p.m.

Nothing gets a fire going quite like gasoline.

A less-than-environmentally conscious neighbor proved that in dramatic fashion when we were kids. We lived next to a farm. One large hayfield was steps from our side door.

The farm — like those with chickens, dairy cows and hogs, and all the corn and other feed needed to sustain them — sometimes had rats.

They usually didn't stray far enough to reach our places. But when this neighbor for a while tried to keep a horse in a fenced area more suitable size-wise for a large dog, they migrated in.

His solution was to pour gasoline down their holes, drop in a match, then greet the rats coming out the other end with birdshot.

You might call it the “kawhoosh and bang” theory of pest management.

It worked OK, I suppose — for everyone but the rats — though it didn't make him really popular with the suddenly nervous neighbors. And when his daughter later accidentally set fire to about a half-dozen acres of the hayfield in another, non-rat instance of pyromania, well, it kind of put the kibosh on all the burning for a while.

But petroleum — in at least one form — can be a great help if you're an outdoorsman.

Maybe you're on a weekend camp out and want to start a fire to make mountain pies. Maybe you've wandered off the trail and realize you're going to have to spend an unexpected night outside. Maybe you've swamped your canoe on a backcountry excursion and, wet and cold, getting a fire started is critical to fending off hypothermia.

That can be tough if the conditions aren't right.

Petroleum balls, or PET balls, as some call them, can be a great help. They're a dependable firestarter and fire extender.

Quite simply, a PET ball is a cotton ball — or gob of drier lint, if you really want to make these on the cheap — that you've lathered up with petroleum jelly. When they're good and oily, you stuff them into some kind of waterproof container. I use old film canisters, but a candy tin or even a sealable plastic bag would be OK.

When you need to start a fire, take one out, peel it apart until you've created what looks like a cotton ball or drier lint bird's nest and hit it with a flame or even a spark from a ferro rod or flint and steel. You get instant fire.

The fibers of the cotton ball burn but much slower than they would otherwise. They'll usually even light when a bit damp. In any case, you can count on each ball to burn for five minutes or longer rather than a matter of seconds.

That gives you time to add kindling and build the fire you need to have fun or stay alive.

You can carry a dozen of these in a backpack, coat pocket or tackle box without even knowing it. Just stuff them in and go. When you want a fire — and especially when you really need a fire — they're a great tool.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend them for rat control, though. Let your neighbors develop any twitches on their own.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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