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Fire Control for Rural Clean-Ups After Ice Storms and Other Weather Events

Lawnmower is used to drag a cart of small broken limbs and tow a group of fallen pine limbs to the burn piles.
Lawnmower is used to drag a cart of small broken limbs and tow a group of fallen pine limbs to the burn piles.

Rural residents who do not have access to curb-side pick-up of limbs downed by storm events are sometimes faced with the problem of disposing of a ton or more of broken limbs and downed trees. By using two small-diameter burn piles in the yard and mostly hand tools, it is possible to clean up this debris by yourself, save money and simultaneously obtain a large amount of productive physical exercise. I have, like most retirees, limited income and must do what yard work that I can by myself. The past 30 years have included several hurricanes and ice storms which provided large amounts of woody materials and ample opportunities to perfect my disposal techniques.

Fallen limbs under pine.
Fallen limbs under pine.
Significant factors to consider are what types of trees or need to be burned, the broken branches’ position on the ground or hung up in the trees, the wetness of the soils and the amount and directions of wind. With proper fire management some burning may be safely done under almost any conditions, but not everything can, or should be, burned every day. For example, on windy days leafy limbs that may have red-hot leaves carried aloft by the hot air rising from the fire that can set fire to other parts of your yard or nearby woodlands. However, the same conditions may be ideal for combusting green hardwood branches which have no leaves. Limbs from broad-leafed trees, like magnolia, should only be burned when conditions are wet. Assuming that the storm brought snow, ice or rain, these broad-leafed limbs are the first things to go on my burn pile. You can see a video of this progressive burning process at:

If you are a farmer, have a front-end bucket on your tractor and a nearby plowed field; you can scoop up everything, put it in a huge pile in the middle of the field and burn it all at one time when conditions are damp enough to insure that the fire cannot get away from you. My tractor is a Snapper lawnmower that I convert to a limb-pulling vehicle by removing the mower deck. The mower’s large-diameter wheels and comparatively light weight do much less damage to my lawn than my pick-up. Although, I use the pick-up and a heavy log chain to pull things that are too heavy for the lawnmower to manage. Chain saws are a necessary item for any rural landowner. I have several, but prefer to do much of my initial chopping with hand tools and pull the larger limbs to one place. Once I get the saw/s started, I cut through the entire pile at once. I also put the chain saw and related materials in a plastic cement-mixing tub and tow it around the edges of my lot to cut blown-over trees.

Cutting the side limbs off the branches will allow the size of the fire to be kept small and result in more efficient combustion.
Cutting the side limbs off the branches will allow the size of the fire to be kept small and result in more efficient combustion.

Recommended Progression of Work

1. While the storm is in progress move your vehicles, if you have not already, out from under trees and put them in the middle of open fields or your yard.
2. When the storm is abating, gather your tools, sharpen them and plan out what you are going to do.
3. Select an area for two burn piles about 20 yards apart. This is the site where everything will be towed. You do not want to have burn piles at different places in your yard because of the difficulty in keeping an eye on all of them at once. If the fire starts to catch in your lawn or elsewhere, you need to be ready to put it out immediately.
4. While conditions are still wet, rake up and carry anything near your burn piles to the piles and burn this up. The area near the piles needs to be kept as clean and leaf free as possible, including cleaning up around them after each day’s burning.
5. While the ground is still saturated, drag up by hand, if possible, any branches that have leaves on them.
6. Cut the branches into fairly straight lengths who that they will lie as flat as possible on the pile for better combustion efficiency. If necessary use paper and waste oil or gasoline to start the fires and began to build up a bed of coals.
7. Hauling to one pile and then the other keep both piles going until all of your leafy material is safely burned.
8. As the coals accumulate you can start to put limbs as large as 4-inches in diameter across the fire to start them burning.

Small branches periodically added to the piles will encourage more rapid combustion of green wood.
Small branches periodically added to the piles will encourage more rapid combustion of green wood.

9. When burning green, wet wood it may be necessary to put a cart-full of small dryer cuttings on the fires to keep them going. You may need to add a cart-full between every load of green wood or after every two or three loads.
10. About two hours before you are going to end your day, concentrate on fire management and cleaning up around your burn piles.
11. Allow the fire to burn down to coals and place some large leafless limbs on the fire to burn overnight.
12. Three times during the night check on the fire, and push the limbs closer to the middle of the bed of coals as they burn through.
13. The next morning resume your burning by placing more materials on your coals and “sweetening” the fire by adding a cart load of dryer materials to catch everything up.
14. As you drag up your larger limbs with your lawn tractor or pick up, tow your mortar tub behind it and fill it with smaller limbs and twigs from the site where you are working. This will provide more smaller material to put on the fire between the larger limbs and speed combustion.
15. As needed, sharpen your tools and chain saw blade. Cutting is much easier on green wood than dry wood. As a consequence, you want to cut as much green wood as you can.
16. Know your tools and how to use them. With hatchets and axes, cut away from you wherever possible. When chopping down, spread your legs so if the ax blade goes through the object that it is cutting it will go into the ground, rather than through a foot. God gave you five toes on each foot, and you very likely want to keep them.

At the end of the day you want your fire to be completely burned down and the area around it raked clean.
At the end of the day you want your fire to be completely burned down and the area around it raked clean.

Remember, these broken branches are not going anywhere, so there is no need to over extend your physical abilities by attempting to do everything during one day. Wear gloves, boots and glasses to protect your hands and other body parts. When you start to get tired, wind things up for the day. EXHAUSTED PEOPLE MAKE FOOLISH MISTAKES. Keep in mind what you are doing, and what a sudden gusts of wind might do to your fire. If you are going to let a portion of the fire burn overnight, make sure that there is absolutely no leafy material in the fire or around it. Then add your limbs and let them burn. Check on your fire several times during the night and shift the limbs around to make sure they completely burn by the next morning when you can resume the process.

It may be necessary for you to request a burn permit from the state forestry authority or other agency before lighting your fire. Work slowly and be safe. As is often said, “Fire is a good servant, but a bad master.”

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