The Camp Fire effect: more escaped burn piles than ever

Just because it's a permissible burn day doesn't mean it always makes sense to burn

The aftermath of an escaped burn pile on Easter Sunday.

NEVADA CITY, Calif. April 22, 2019 – Easter Sunday was sunny and breezy. It was also a permissible burn day. What could possibly go wrong? You guessed it, firefighters were busy chasing and extinguishing escaped debris burns.

Today, April 22nd 2019, is a No Burn Day. No change in residents’ behavior however, escaped debris burns are popping up all over Nevada County. As a reminder, an escaped burn pile may cost you a hefty fine and even suppression costs.

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The Camp Fire Effect

The loss of lives and the destruction caused by the Camp Fire has a lasting effect on people living in the Wildland Urban Interface or Intermix (WUI). Homeowners are attempting to reduce the fuel load on their properties,  cutting brush, limbing trees and rethinking their landscaping.

Many, many more people are aware they are living in a tinderbox and take responsibility for reducing the risk of a catastrophic fire – and that’s a very good thing!

Agencies are equally upgrading their capacities and tend to lead by example, clearing public properties, applying for grant funding and providing information and educational materials.

Photo courtesy NCCFD

The only downside: If you are new to the Firewise lifestyle, the learning curve is steep. Never mind the blisters or using inadequate tools, the number of escaped burn piles tells the story.

Alternatives to burning

Instead of burning, especially on smaller properties, consider these alternatives:

Burn correctly and safely

If the alternatives above don’t work for your property, make sure you know how to burn safely. Notify your neighbors, many residents have respiratory difficulties and inhaling smoke from your burn pile is not high on anyone’s wishlist. You can find the info below and more in Week 7 of our series Preparing for Wildfire Season in Nevada County – Week 7: Burn piles.

Burn day status

It is imperative to check the burn day status before lighting your piles. You can check the burn day status online at the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District (NSAQMD) or via phone: Western Nevada County: (530) 274-7928 and Eastern Nevada County: (530) 582-1027.

If it’s too windy or too wet at your location, even if it’s a permissible burn day, postpone burning until conditions improve.

No Burn Days based on smoke dispersion and trapping of pollutants are determined by the air district. Ridges of high pressure create temperature inversions where the air is warmer a few hundred feet or more above the ground than at ground level. This traps smoke and leads to poor or no smoke dispersion.

Burn permits

For residential burn piles, a burn permit issued by a fire department is required for parts of the year. You can obtain these free permits from most fire departments in Nevada County or apply online on the CAL FIRE website. Read the instructions on the burn permit and follow them – if the burn pile escapes you may be liable for suppression cost and/or a fine.

Residential burn piles

  • In Nevada County, burn barrels are prohibited.
  • Your burn pile cannot exceed 4 ft. by 4 ft. when residential burn permits are required.
  • Clear all flammable materials and vegetation within 10-ft around your burn pile. Scrape the area down to bare soil.
  • Keep a water supply close by, like a garden hose or a portable water tank. Have a shovel ready as well.
  • Never leave a burn pile unattended – meaning an adult has to be present.
  • Your burn pile cannot contain mainly leaves and pine needles.
  • Burn only natural vegetation, no garbage, painted or treated wood, plastic, paper, construction debris etc.
  • Let your neighbors know when you will be burning. Anyone with respiratory ailments or sensitive to smoke will especially appreciate the heads up.
  • For the best smoke dispersion, burn between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm.

Pile branches and brush loosely for better combustion. Check that there are no overhanging branches above your pile. Cover your burn pile(s) until it is a permissible burn day and you are ready to light the pile. Burning hot and clean minimizes smoke.

The NSAQMD has a great section with Tips on Burning:

“PREPARE YOUR BURN
  • Construct piles loosely, with spaces to allow adequate oxygen to reach the burning material.
  • Construct piles intelligently, in a dome or teepee shape that allows heat to build so that flames can be maintained and the vegetation can be consumed rapidly.  Flat, sprawling piles rarely burn well.
  • Create a “heart” of fine, flammable vegetation such as dry scotch broom and light it down low on the side the wind is coming from.
  • Check berry vines for excessive moisture by breaking a thick cane and squeezing the pith — many people have accidentally offended their neighbors by burning wet berry vines that were dry on the outside.
  • Make sure your pile is clean (another regulatory requirement); an archenemy of a good burn pile is dirt, which concentrates as the vegetation burns away, reducing airflow.
  • If you have a large pile or multiple piles, light a small test fire first, to make sure the smoke goes up and away from neighbors.
  • Try to burn when a storm is approaching (and the air pressure is dropping); smoke dispersion is usually pretty good then.  In general, low air pressure equates to better smoke dispersion.  Observe wood stove smoke in your area to get an idea of how your smoke is likely to behave.
TENDING YOUR BURN PILE
  • Use a hat (as a fan), leaf blower or tractor fan to force air into the pile as needed.
  • Wear gloves and keep tools on hand to manipulate branches and fluff the pile up as needed, and turn protruding, smoking branches in to the flames (you can shield the heat from your face with a shovel or a leather hat if necessary, and don’t wear loose, flammable clothing such as an unbuttoned overshirt).
  • Arrange slightly damp leaves and brush around the active pile to dry them before adding them to the pile.
  • Don’t burn all the small branches first.  Pace the addition of small stuff to maintain flames as needed.  Likewise, be aware of how well various plants burn — manzanita, buckbrush and broom can be gradually added to keep less flammable plants such as hardwoods and ornamentals burning well.  English laurel is especially notorious for burning poorly and creating irritating smoke.
  • Stay with your pile and make sure it burns hot and clean.  When it has burned down to coals, put it out with water if possible instead of letting it smolder all night (extinguished coals can be good for a garden).
  • If your fire is not going well, or smoke is blowing toward a neighbor’s house, it is perfectly honorable and neighborly to put it out and wait for another day.
THINGS NOT TO BURN
  • Never burn household garbage or cardboard. Plastics, foam and the colored ink on magazines, boxes, and wrappers produce harmful chemicals when burned. They may also damage your wood-burning appliance.
  • Never burn coated, painted, or pressure-treated wood because it releases toxic chemicals when burned.
  • Never burn ocean driftwood, plywood, particle board, or any wood with glue on or in it. They all release toxic chemicals when burned.
  • Do not attempt to burn large stumps in a residential area, and avoid burning punky logs that are well on their way to enriching the soil.
  • Try to avoid burning poison oak.  While medical opinions vary, extensive anecdotal evidence indicates that the smoke can cause an allergic reaction.”