When you have a farm like I do, with a lot of pastures, a lot of fence lines and a lot of trees, you inevitably spend a lot of time clearing dead trees, fallen limbs, etc. from your fences and fields. It’s a never ending job. Sometimes I collect the wood for firewood (I heat my house with that in the winter). Sometimes I just throw it back in the woods to rot. Sometimes I collect it up into a pile and burn it. Over the past 7 or 8 years, I have had hundreds of fires and burnt countless tons of debris.
Three or four years ago I decided to clear a bunch of pine trees out of one of my pastures – they were kind of in the way when I wanted to cut hay and they kept dropping limbs. They were very large – ~16″-18″ in diameter and there were over 40 of them so I decided not to try to do it myself. I hired my neighbor who has a landscaping business and the right equipment to come and cut them down, haul away the trunks to a lumber mill and remove the stumps. He left all the limbs in huge piles. I thought “Great, I’ll get a wood chipper and chip them up for mulch – heck I use a lot of that in my orchard anyway.” After several days of chipping all day and only clearing 6 or 7 of the 40+ piles, I gave upon on that idea. Wow that was time consuming and tiring. Oh, and I blew out the rear window of my pickup truck in the process but that’s another story.
After the remaining wood sat there for a year, chipping it was no longer viable – it dries out and gets to hard. So I spent several weekends hauling piles in my pickup truck to my main “burn pile” and burning it. Another ~4 piles gone, heck, only ~30 to go. So it sat for a couple of more years. I decided to take a run at it this Fall. But this time I wanted to be more efficient. I decided to burn the piles “in place”. They are out in the middle of a huge field and, of course by now, they are way overgrown with weeds and in some cases, saplings. I waited until after a good solid rain so that the ground was good and damp. I used my mower to cut about a 12 foot ring of very short grass around the piles to reduce the chance of the fire escaping into the grass. I also got a stock tank with about 40 gallons of water and a bucket so I could dowse any areas that the fire started to get away.
I lit one pile and tended it. For the first hour or so everything went well. The fire was contained within the circle of grass I had cut and I used a little water here and there to stop it advancing. At some point it started to escape on multiple sides of the fire. I was running back and forth with buckets of water as fast as I could but it wasn’t working. Sloshing a bucket just wasn’t an effective enough method and eventually the fire got away from me. I frantically called my wife and asked her to call 911 and come help me while I kept trying to keep the fire back.
About 10 minutes later the fire department showed up – 2 trucks and countless firemen. They had the fire out in about another 15 minutes. All told, it burned about 1/3rd of an acre. It had reached 2 of the other wood piles – a good 30 or 40 feet away and lit them on fire. Man, was it scary. Another 10 minutes or so and the fire would have made it to the woods and that would have really been a disaster.
I have to say I felt like an idiot. The forest ranger who came told me they probably get 100 fires like that every year, just in our area. Doesn’t make me feel a lot better though. Burning a fire in a middle of a field is hard. Grass just catches fire too quickly. I think, if I had it to do again, I’d have taken a trimmer and cut the grass around the fire all the way down to the dirt and then raked the remains away.
Here’s a picture I took after it was all over. I was too busy/stressed to take any pictures while it was happening.
So much for a quiet and peaceful weekend. Thankfully no one was hurt and no property was damaged – just some burnt grass. But it’s a reminder to be super careful with fire.