Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Burn Pile Rules

I guess there are two ways to take this title: Rules as in guidelines or Rules as in Rulez!  I mean the guidelines one.  (Although a burn pile can be a pretty rockin' thing, as you will see.)

I present these thoughts on a successful burn pile not because I think I know all about them and you don't, but because I need to learn some things over and over again before I really learn them, so I kinda codify them to make them stick.

I also hope others have interesting approaches, and will share them in the comments.

And so, Buck's Burn Pile Rules:

First make sure it is burning season where you live.  Here at the Homestead, we can burn for two months in the fall, and three or so in the spring.  In those windows, we can burn any time.  But at our other place, 20 miles away, we have to call to check with the local fire bureau to make sure it is OK.

With the burn season so limited, all the summer brush piles up.  Which leads to Rule 2:

If you have a lot to burn, don't pile it all in one place.  If you are lucky and your fire takes off, it could get way too big.  Once the pile in the actual burning spot gets big enough, I start making side piles.  Far enough away that they won't accidentally catch on fire, near enough that they are easy to move to the blaze.
This year, I had a bunch of doug fir limbs, too rotted or small to be firewood. I also had a lot of rotted lumber from the barn restoration.  A lot of brush and a pile of siding that was full of dry rot and termite holes. 
So I ended up with 4 different piles.  I could add stuff as I wanted, to keep the fire roaring but in control.

If you don't have an established burn pile, think about the future use of the area.  This burn spot has been used for decades.  It is full of wire, nails, odd bits of metal.  We don't plan to graze animals here, so we don't worry about cleaning it up.  Anything with nails in it goes to this pile.

Conversely, when clearing brush up in the pasture, I use a clean burn spot there.  It only gets material with no nails or metal.  That way, in a few years, we can let animals roam there and not worry about it. 

Next rule: start the fire on the up-wind side of the pile.  This is kinda obvious, but it has literally taken me a dozen fires to get this in my head.  I have 3 main burn piles, and all are approached from the down-wind side.  So naturally, I light it from the side I walk up on.  But when I do this, the wind blows the fire away from the pile, which does not help at all.
 I got it right this day.

Oops, before you light your fire, make sure you have a hose at the ready.  And make sure it is not buried under a big pile of brush you stacked up months ago.  Remember, hose before fire!
OK, now your fire is going well.  The breeze has pushed the flame into the center of the pile, and it is uncomfortably hot less than 15 feet away.  Congratulations!
Hopefully you started the fire early enough that it can burn out before the end of the burn day.  I didn't, but I am sure you will.

Try to load any long burning material on early, so you are not left with big chunks of log at the end of the day.  I had a half dozen hunks of rotted cherry tree, and got them on as early as I could.
It is always important to make time for relationships.  Phoebe was kind enough to bring out a couple lattes made with her lovely homestead-roasted beans.  Cookies are nice too.
I always try to think about the next fire. Odds are I will not do another big burn until the spring.  By then I will have a lot of wet blackberry and scotch broom, and more downed fir limbs. They will be impossible to light.  So I put aside some of the really dry stuff, under cover, to help me get a fire going then.  It is a nice, neat pile, so I won't mind looking at it until then.
4 hours after I lit the fire, I put the last material on.  Of course, the fire was supposed to be out by now.  Remember what I said about needing to learn the same lessons over and over?
3 hours later I had an awesome pile of embers.  The pile is not as large as it looks; it sits on a permanent ash mound.  But still, there was a lot of heat.  If this was a new burn spot, I would be worried about tree roots running under the pile catching fire.  That can really happen, and the roots can carry the fire into the tree.  But since there is such a barrier in this spot, I don't worry about it here.  If you make a new pile, be aware that that is a very real possibility.
 Anyway, big ole pile of red hot coals.  What to do, what to do...?
 Could do some fire walking.  Or...
 ...could roast some marshmallows.  We went for the smores.
Next morning, it was pretty burned down.  Still some embers in there; it could kick up again if I fed it.  By noon or so, it was all out.

So, that is how I do it.  I love a good burn, and the neat and tidy aftermath.

Anybody out there have any other tips or thoughts?


  1. Make sure that you are on good terms with the local Volunteer Fire Department (or become a volunteer yourself!). We had a guy that the VFD was constantly having to go to his house to put out huge burn piles he was burning....finally convinced him to join the Fire Department! :)

    Making a fire break by raking leaves and other combustables from around the pile. Making sure the humidity is between 30-70%, wind speed is low and in a consistant direction. Having a rake, hose and a leaf blower available is also a good precaution.

    And having a good supply of marshmallows is a must.

  2. Ugg! You just reminded me I need to go burn some of my many piles I made this summer.

    I like getting the fire started down low and then add some big pieces of cardboard over top of it. It seems to concentrate the heat and help it take off pretty fast. Then again, maybe it's just luck. :)


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