Tom's Blog

Friday, December 14, 2012

Burning brush piles

The first snow of the winter is a great time for burning brush piles and  yesterday was the day.

Each year we create a "generic" brush pile on the edge of the Valley Prairie adjacent to Pleasant Valley Road where slash, and woody stuff and bags of weeds are tossed We start in early summer and continue through the rest of the year. By early December this pile is dry and burns well.

Most of the piles we burned yesterday were in the lower part of the North Woods, just uphill from County F. These piles had been created via restoration work done on a LIP grant last winter. Since they were really dry they burned very well.

There is an "art" to building a good brush pile. All of the 13 piles we burned yesterday had been built by Amanda last winter. As the photo above shows, these piles are fairly compact but the sticks are not so tight that air can't get in. In order to build piles like these, you need to cut off side branches, since they keep the sticks from lying horizontal and in parallel. Also, once the pile gets fairly large, it helps to jump on it from time to time and push it down.

The crew got all 13 piles burning well and then went off to lunch. By the time they returned, each pile was mostly burned down, but there are always outlier sticks and branches that escape the fire. Time for consolidating.

Consolidating a brush pile is an art in itself. The ideal tool is a pitchfork, which works well to pick up partially burned branches and twigs. All unburned material is thrown into the burning center of the pile, where it quickly catches fire. Bigger logs can be picked up by hand and tossed onto the fire. Heavy duty leather gloves are essential here, since they are fire- and scuff-resistant.

By the time you return the next day, there should be lots of ash but very little unburned material. If the area under the burn pile is to be planted, the ashes should be blown away with a powerful leaf blower so that the seeds can reach the mineral soil. Because of the intense heat, the underlying soil is essentially sterile. Although it will eventually get colonized on its own, it is best to short-cut this lengthy succession process by using plant species that are adapted to the particular habitat.


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