Just before this latest unwelcome round of slushy snow piled in, I started the annual spring yard cleanup. Like a lot of people, I discovered that this year I’m facing a much bigger mess than usual.
There are hundreds, or maybe thousands, of tree branches scattered all over the place. They range from 20-foor-long branches to just a few inches. Dead branches, live branches, branches that traveled over 100 feet from their tree — this was a brutally windy winter that did a real number on trees. I’ve never seen it so bad.
So cleanup begins. To get rid of branches you usually have 4 options — hire someone to do it, gather it up yourself and take it to your town’s yard waste dump, dump it yourself in a remote corner of your yard, or — my favorite — pile it up and burn it.
Brush burning is maybe the last caveman/cavewoman activity that is legally permitted in our modern life. Think about it — for thousands of years humans built big fires, and they got to be pretty good at it. Nowadays, most people don’t really know anything about how to get a rip roaring fire going. There’s some tricks to it that take practice to master.
Why burn a brush fire?
Here’s a few reasons why you should burn your brush:
- You’ll get rid of it fast, and if you are a good fire builder/tender, there will be almost nothing left.
- What’s left is a little pile of ash that makes for excellent fertilizer.
- You’ll provide your neighborhood with instant and cheap entertainment, except for the guy/gal/guys/gals whose house(s) gets filled with smoke. Be sure to invite them over and let them throw their branches on your fire.
- You will get the caveman satisfaction of building a tiny, wobbly fire into an awesome conflagration. You’ll be there for hours, fully entertained. You’ll love it and you’ll want to do it again tomorrow.
Most towns allow you to have open burning fires. The restrictions are set by the state, though some towns throw in additional laws. In general, the season runs from Jan. 15 to April 30, and you need to get a permit from your local fire department. You can burn brush that fell or was cut from trees, as well as garden/orchard clippings. You can’t burn leaves, garbage, demo debris, tree trunks, and stuff like that. You can start burning at 10 a.m., and the fire has to be out by 4 p.m. Your fire must be at least 75 feet from a structure, and you need a nearby source of water, like a garden hose, just in case things get out of hand.
The setback from structures makes it legally impossible for a lot of people to have a brush fire, although a lot of people do it anyway. I think most fire departments will let you wiggle on that one as long as you have a safe fire, and you don’t create a nuisance.
Even if you have a permit, you can’t necessarily have a brush fire. The local FD decides whether to allow burning on a given day based on the weather conditions. You have to call the FD on the day you plan to burn in order to get permission for that day. In general, they don’t allow burning on really windy or cloudy/stormy days. Burning usually isn’t allowed on cloudy days because in theory, the smoke hovers close to the ground and annoys the neighborhood.
Setting your fire
So how do you go about getting a good fire going? It starts with stacking your wood just right. I try to create a tent-shaped structure that has lots of gaps for air to get in. You want to be sure to give the fire lots of room to breathe and suck in oxygen. A tightly-packed pile is a non-starter. Green branches won’t burn terribly well (at first anyway), so you want to be sure to have plenty of dead and dry wood in there. If you have a dry Christmas tree or evergreen branches, you’ve hit the pyro jackpot. That stuff will go up in a big blaze of glory.
Be sure to locate your pile in a good spot — as far as possible from neighbors, and in a relatively clear spot. It’s ok to have trees overhead as long as the fire isn’t going to reach the branches. If you build your fire near a pine tree, you’ll have an epic disaster on your hands. Whatever is growing under the pile won’t be alive once it’s done. That grass or whatever will be completely fried and gone, and will need to be replanted.
I think an adequately-sized pile is about 4-5 feet tall and about 8 feet in diameter. If you have more brush than that, set it to the side and add it once the fire gets to the furnace stage.
I start my fire with some newspaper, cardboard, and some scrap lumber. I build that little fire on the edge of the big pile, close enough so some of the big pile is directly in its burn area. If you were in the boy scouts or girl scouts, try to retrieve that long-buried knowledge of how to start a fire — start with the small stuff and gradually add more material. Once you light your fire, you need to stay right on top of it — add material to it, but not too much. This can be tricky, because usually a fire is pretty lazy.
A nice hot furnace
Often a fire doesn’t really want to get going, it prefers to sputter along for awhile. So you need to make it get going. Sometimes it fools you into thinking it’s going well, like when you see a nice flare-up. Chances are that flare-up will quickly become a flare-down, unless you nurse it along.
Your fire is not really going good until you detect 3 things — the flame is a clear orange flume that shoots up about 3-6 feet in the air (not to brag, but…some of my proudest fires had 10-foot flumes), it’s throwing off enough heat so it feels hot when you get within 5-10 feet of it, and the branches are crackling loudly and nicely. That transition can happen suddenly. Once it does, you’ll be very happy. You just created an awesome fire, way bigger and more entertaining than a fireplace fire.
At this point, that fire will burn just about everything you throw on it — wet branches, green branches, wet logs — it’s basically an open furnace. You’ll want to have a good shovel on hand to push in the remnants of branches and half-burned sticks that are on the outskirts of the hot mound of coals at the fire’s base. Keep feeding it.
Don’t take any dumb shortcuts, like throwing gasoline on the fire. That’s illegal. Even a caveman wouldn’t do it. First of all, it doesn’t do what you think it will do. It creates an enormous flare-up that usually flares down just as quickly. Secondly, fire will travel up that stream of gasoline, right to you. You can guess what happens next.
Invite the neighbors
You can be guaranteed that your fire will send billows of smoke all over the place. That’s why you’ve got to build it away from houses, and invite the neighbors over. We usually draw a small crowd to our fires, and the neighbors (whose houses are probably engulfed in smoke) bring branches and beer, and sometimes hot dogs. And everyone is happy. The caveman deep inside all of us gets a nice wake-up call.
Your fire will probably burn for hours, and the embers will keep glowing for a day or more. If you want to thoroughly extinguish the fire, you need to spread the embers out and dose them with water.
I usually let the embers keep burning, in order to get rid of nuisance trunks and logs. Those embers will also gradually burn through any big logs you throw onto them. It’s amazing how efficiently they burn through huge chunks of wood.
Once the fire is completely out, you’ll have a fairly small pile of ash. Really small, compared to the amount of stuff you burned. The ash is ideal for your garden or yard.
That’s a brush fire, in a nutshell. So if you’re tired of watching your TV shows and regular “programs,” and you want to revisit the best part of being a caveman (or cavewoman), light a brush fire.
John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. To keep up on what’s for sale at the farm like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/