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Why busting? The Value of Making Fire in Wilderness Therapy

Posted by Ed Coombs on September 01, 2021

CA2706D7 D64D 4107 9E87 A178E0235100Busting is field slang for making fire with a bow-drill fire set. When I was a new field staff learning the ropes of wilderness therapy, we talked about the three pillars of the program. One of those pillars was busting; hiking and the “I feel” statement were the other two. Those three pillars still stand today.

I didn’t get an ember my first shift, in fact, I wasn’t fully confident with busting until I had been working for a couple of months. There were a lot of spindle-whipped fingers, scuffed knuckles from bowing with little nubby pieces, spindles popping out of the fireboard because my bowing wasn’t even, and lost embers in hastily constructed nests. But then one day, you get that ember quick, and drop it into a tidy nest with plenty of fines in a deep pocket, and you breathe onto it like you are “fogging a mirror,” and then it starts to catch, and the smoke starts pouring out! You have to be calm so you don’t blow too hard, so that sparks aren’t flying out, and then all that smoke just pops and you have a flame! Few things are more satisfying or tangible in the field then being able to get a flame.

So why do I love such a labor-instensive and trial-filled process?

Busting is so pure and honest. It’s the confirmation of effort. I’ve seen some clients become emotional with frustration as they can’t figure it out. For some it doesn’t happen quick enough, or their body position is awkward, or a spindle is wonky. But after a tune-up to their set or technique, they replace that upset with confidence and validation when they are able to make a fire on their own. It’s more than a hot meal or earning a headlamp; it’s empowering to be able to take care of yourself or parents on an overnight visit.


That feeling when you finally get that flame!

Busting is the reward of consistency. When a participant first enters the group, they are usually gifted a full bow-drill set--a couple of spindles, a fireboard or two, a top-rock, a bow, and some nesting. Those will keep new client going for a while, but they’ve got to take care of them and not lose pieces, which can be a challenge for some people. I would double bag my set to help keep it from getting lost or wet. You also have to harvest new pieces, and this is where the consistency really comes in, as new group members are a fact of life. It’s a medium term goal/challenge to think more than a week ahead , and know that you’ve got to find good sage/seep will/juniper/yucca/etc., and be able to process it into workable pieces for not only your needs, but for someone else. There is so much assessment that comes from that alone.

Busting is also the bane of the half-hearted. I’ve seen folks “work on a top rock” for a week as they try to avoid the process and hope to stay below staff radar. Busting is tough because you cannot manipulate an ember. You can’t “lie” your way into a flame; it’s either a flame or it isn’t. You can’t cram and get a fire in one day, after avoiding it for weeks. You have to work at it consistently, and for some, it’s hard to show up every day. I’ve seen people, big and small, flip out and stomp off because they can’t just “make a fire happen.” But fires don’t “just happen” – nothing in the wilderness “just happens;” it’s always the pay-off from effort.

And there are longer-term ripples to this craft. I worked with a client in Group Three for a number of shifts. He struggled with self-confidence and propped up his identity by aligning with negative peers. He and another client liked to call themselves the “bad boys” of the group. Eventually he grew out of that, connected with some of the program tools, and graduated from the program. After some time had passed, Entrada clinical director and therapist Matt Hoag told me a story about this client. When he was on a home visit from his aftercare, the client was having some struggles, and didn’t want to have to go back. He argued and fell into old habits with his parents. And then he remembered busting. He went into his room and got his bow-drill set for his closet. He went out to his drive way, busted an ember, and blew it to flames. He then said something to the effect of, “If I can still do that, then I don’t need to go back to the woods, and I can go back to aftercare and keep working.” Not every client connects so profoundly or concretely with busting, but this one really did.

While working in another group, I brought in a 3”x3” square metal washer from off of an old electrical pole or something I had found on my off-week, and thought it would be great for making top rocks. I brought it out to the field with me and would lend it to clients so they could use it to make and finish the holes on their rocks. One client, who I’d worked with quite a bit, was particularly adept at making top rocks, and had a couple of spares. As we were in an area that lacked good spindles, I offered to trade him some spindles, as he had “gifted” most of his to new clients during their fire phase ceremonies. I gave him three 10”-12”perfect sage spindles for a fantastic orange-brown top rock that had a hole so polished that it doesn’t grind your spindle like some coarser rocks do. Both of us were stoked with the trade, and I still have that top rock in my set.


Foraging for busting materials.

I’ve so many memories tied to harvesting set pieces. I remember Left Fork Antelope Canyon, with sage that was 9 feet tall and as thick as your thigh. There are washes in Nevada and Utah with fields of sage that had spindles that were like batons – straight and perfect. On Manganese Bend I found cottonwood and juniper root fireboards in the usually dry river banks. Jackson Wash was where I first saw Seep Willow clumps that had tons of spindles. In the upper field and transition areas, I’d find Service Berry, my favorite material for bows. Hiking the creek beds on Big Bench we’d find perfect top rock blanks. I even pulled off the road on the way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to harvest Mullein stalks for spindles (I have a very patient family).

Busting even made it out of the field for me. I’d bust flames to show family and friends at group camp-outs. For a couple of years, I taught busting at conferences to university professionals as a primitive team-building activity and would give away a dozen sets in a day. Even now, I still carry a hatchet, saw, and knife in my daypack, not just because I’m weird, but just in case I see something good that needs to be harvested. Busting is a transformative skill that can, and usually does, become a part of you.


Good stuff Ed. A few fave quotes…”busting is a transformative skill”
“And not just because I’m weird. “
“You cannot manipulate an ember. “

Posted by Sanford Shapiro

Thank you for sharing this Ed. I wish this could be sent to my daughter in the field. She has become quite adept at busting, but the way you speak of the underlying meaning would be very powerful for her to hear.

Posted by Julie

I enjoyed this article about busting, a valuable skill my son learned in wilderness. This article is a very accurate description of what he gained from this experience. He made all
the newcomer mistakes but eventually took the time to be successful. I can see this play out in his life today with school, work and relationships.

Posted by Colleen Rohm

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