How to burn a brush pile

Olivia Fowler

Olivia Fowler

On The Way

By Olivia Fowler

We always seem to have a brush pile somewhere on Fowler Farm that needs to be burned. Some years there’s more than one, according to events involving trees and fences, branches and undergrowth. It’s interesting to see how quickly an area can transform from a spread of green grass into a jungle. One day you may have a groomed yard or healthy pasture. With a few weeks of neglect, honeysuckle, blackberry brambles, broom sage and tiny trees will begin their invasion. If too much time passes without some kind of maintenance, the area becomes a jungle.

Briars, brambles and rogue tree limbs can’t be left lying around. They have to be piled up in an uncultivated area, away from buildings and woods, then left to dry out so that later, when the time is right, they can be burned.

Deciding when to burn the brush is a delicate proposition, entirely dependent upon the weather. You can’t burn effectively in the rain. You shouldn’t burn during a drought unless you want to wipe out entire neighborhoods.

Unless the pile has grown too large, Fowler waits until rain is predicted then spreads a large tarp on top of each pile so that when the rain stops the area around the brush pile will be safe and the brush will be dry enough to burn.

Last week we had three huge piles ready for burning. Fowler burned two of them, and I burned the third. Or for the sake of accuracy I should say I attempted to burn the third.

Usually it’s a simple enough operation. We wad up old newspapers and push some into the pile, followed by some kindling, then a few larger pieces of wood. Under normal circumstances, the lighting of the newspapers begins a fire that burns steadily from the inside out. Someone has to be in charge of monitoring the fire and keeping the outside edges pushed toward the center until everything is consumed.

Caution! If you plan to sit out in a muddy field in a chair to view the flames, be advised the legs of the chair may sink down into the mud until the seat is almost level with the ground. If this does happen, there’s no way to get out of the chair unassisted.

And yes, this did happen to me. Fowler was by then on the tractor and couldn’t have heard me if I had called for help.

Rolling out into the mud seemed to be my only option. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do this. Red Dog came over and stood while I used him to help pull myself up.

It was then I noticed my fire had gone out. Fowler’s two piles were burning nicely. I started the entire process over, repeating the steps that are usually successful. The results were the same.

I dragged the dried-out Christmas tree to the pile and wedged it into the brush, then lit it. This resulted in a satisfying blaze that burned for about 10 minutes. There were two old stumps in the pile that refused to ignite. More papers were brought, and I tried to roll one of the stumps onto the top of the pile. I’d manage to get it almost to the right place but was never able to control it. As soon as success was almost achieved, the thing would overpower me and roll back to the bottom. I’d push it up, and it would roll back down.

Finally, after becoming exhausted, smutty and frustrated, I temporarily surrendered. I was beaten by a pair of stumps. Two against one was overwhelming odds. This remaining brush pile stands triumphant in a prime garden spot. It had better enjoy its victory while it can. As soon as the weather lets up and the pile dries out a little we will try again. There’s a new plan afoot, possibly involving use of an accelerant. Fowler swears by this method even though he has lost part of his eyebrows in an unfortunate incident in the past. Perhaps I should retire from my post as brush burner and become a brush fire monitor.

My money’s on Fowler. If the stumps have any sense at all they’ll roll off the pile and take to the woods, where they can gradually disintegrate and become one with the earth. Or, they can remain on the pile and be burned to cinders, spread over the soil and become a source of potassium for plants. We’ll see.