Never Too Early to Plan for Late Fall-Early Winter Outdoor Burning

winter-time burn piles
Building these slash piles many weeks before burning allowed the materials to dry out and be almost fully consumed when eventually burned. Photo: U.S. Forest Service.

With fall weather just around the corner people are starting to think of when and how they will burn this year’s silviculture (forestry-related) debris.

In this article I will focus on outdoor burning under Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) rules. The rules apply to burning silvicultural material (wood, branches, bark, etc., left after thinning, pruning or harvesting forest trees) on lands that are:

  • Under DNR wildfire jurisdiction (see insert below)
  • Outside of a designated Urban Growth Area (UGA).

Ten Tips for Success

Here are some tips to ensure you are successful and safe when burning silviculuture debris this fall and winter after temperatures cool and fire dangers recede.

  1. Know the rules – Visit DNR’s Outdoor Burning web page to see if you need a permit to burn. Not all outdoor fires require a permit. Whether or not you need a permit, be sure to call 1-800-323 BURN or check DNR’s fire danger web page before you burn. DNR monitors local fire dangers and air quality issues through the year and may need to restrict or shut down outdoor burning in some areas, even in winter.
  2. Locate the pile in a good place – Piles should be 10 to 20 feet away from trees. Larger slash piles may need to be further away from trees. If protecting your trees is a concern, make sure to burn on a calm day. Wind can easily push a fire’s heat sideways and scorch trees more than 20 feet away. Be aware of what is under your slash pile, too, because burning can damage soil as well as tree roots.
  3. Building tall piles are better – A taller pile is better because it often will burn cleaner and hotter. Just like building a campfire you want to form a pyramid of material. At that bottom of that pyramid you’ll need tinder and kindling to get the larger material above to burn. Needles and small twigs are excellent sources of tinder and kindling to get your slash pile burning efficiently.
  4. Start building piles in spring and summer – Building burn piles in the spring and summer allows them to dry out before fall. Dry material ignites easily and will burn cleaner and more completely.
  5. Cover piles before fall rains – When summer nears its end, cover between a quarter and a third of your slash pile so there will be a dry spot to ignite it. Pick the area you cover carefully; it should have enough dry, fine fuels to easily ignite. Tarps or plastic sold in large sheets make excellent slash pile covers. For a more economical solution, check with local lumber yards to see if they are giving away used lumber wraps — the materials lumber mills use to cover the loads of 2×4’s they ship to lumber yards and home improvement stores.
  6. Build a fuel break around your pile – Clear away all flammable debris for at least 24 inches around your slash pile to prevent the fire from spreading. If your burn is one that requires a permit, follow any special directions indicated on the permit.
  7. Burn with snow – If you live where it gets cold enough for snow to stick on the ground, wait until a couple of inches of snow have accumulated before igniting your pile. If you are not in snow country, burn after several good rains to insure that the ground and any nearby vegetation are moist.
  8. Burn in the fall – Fall or early winter are great times to burn because your material will be dryer than if you waited until spring. Fall burning also takes advantage of the approaching wet, cold winter weather that can help assure the fire stays out after the burn. Statistically, most wildfires caused by escaped outdoor burning occur in the spring, not late fall or early winter.
  9. Ignite your pile with a propane torch – A propane torch is a safe and efficient way to get piles ignited. Never, ever use gasoline to ignite a pile. To see what can happen if you use gasoline, visit www.youtube.com and type in “gas brush piles ignition” to see videos on the many things what can go wrong when you use gasoline to ignite slash piles. Now that you’re online, google “propane torch” for find places to buy a propane torch if you don’t already have one.
  10. Check your pile – Check your pile after you think it is out. Use a shovel to dig in the pile’s ashes to ensure that it is truly out. Numerous spring and summer wildfires linked to outdoor burning are started by slash piles that were burned the previous winter, some even with snow on the ground! What happens is that a pile may burn down and appear to go out but some of the material will get mixed with dirt underneath and smolder throughout winter and into spring. Then, with warmer weather, the ground dries out, the still-smoldering material finally gets exposed to air and nearby dry materials. The result? The next wildfire. No matter how sure you are that your wintertime slash pile burn is out, check the pile again — at last twice — when temperatures warm up in spring.

How do I know if my land is protected from wildfire by DNR? Look at your annual property tax statement. If it contains a charge for the Forest Fire Protection Assessment (FFPA) then your land is under DNR’s wildfire protection jurisdiction. Owners of private and state “forest land” pay this fee to help support DNR’s wildfire preparedness, education, training and other protection activities. FFPA rates are established in law by the legislature (RCW 76.04.610), and are assessed on the unimproved forested or partially forested parcels, excluding structures.


By Guy Gifford, landowner assistance forester & fire prevention and Firewise coordinator, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, guy.gifford@dnr.wa.gov

Want answers to your questions about outdoor burning? Contact your nearest DNR Region Office, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Wildfire Corner: Is your Burn Pile Out? Really Out?

Small burn pile.
Small burn pile. Photo courtesy of CalFire.

Did you do some outdoor burning this winter and spring? If so, please read on because outdoor burning is the leading cause of wildfire in northeast Washington state.

You may be wondering, how does a burn pile become a wildfire? One of the leading reasons is “failure to extinguish” the pile.

Did you know that a pile burned in January can start a wildfire in July? People are often surprised that a pile they burned during the winter and then saw covered by three feet of snow, followed by four inches of rain and produced no visible smoke for six months can still start a fire in summer. It is true and this is how it happens:

The conscientious landowner burns the pile when fire danger is low and outdoor burning is allowed. The pile burns down but some of the material may be mixed in the dirt beneath the ash. Due to the scarcity of oxygen at the bottom of the pile, this material may continue to burn but very, very slowly. It can burn so slowly that no smoke is seen, and the heat produced is so minute that it does not melt any snow that falls on the top of the pile. When you feel the top of the ground with the back of your hand you’ll likely feel only cold ash. But, when summer arrives and the weather warms up, a piece of that slow burning wood near an outer edge of the pile may become exposed to air. The result could be a small flame. If that flame touches nearby dry grass or other dry vegetation, you have the next wildfire.

I have worked on numerous wildfires over the years that started from a pile that the landowner said was “out” and was sure had been out for months. Many times I have walked up a burn pile that looks like it is completely out. I may see no smoke and feel no heat when I touch the ground, but when I put my shovel into the pile and dig into the ash I might find burning material six inches, or maybe even a foot, below the pile’s surface.

What can you do to help ensure your burn pile is fully extinguished?

Use a shovel to dig down into the pile. Dig in several spots in each pile you burned.

Feel the ash with the back of your hand (not your palm). We use the back of our hand because it is more sensitive to heat and, of course, we do not want to get a painful burn on our fingers or palms. If the ash you’ve uncovered feels warm at all, dig deeper to find out where the heat is coming from.

Remember a fire is out only after you dig into it with a shovel and feel no heat in what you dig up. Always dig completely through the ash layer into the dirt below to be sure you’ve haven’t missed anything.

By Guy Gifford, landowner assistance forester & fire prevention and Firewise coordinator, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, guy.gifford@dnr.wa.gov

Fire and Forest Health

Although it is difficult not to think of fire from a destructive point of view, it is in fact a natural process of renewal, and a catalyst for promoting biological diversity and healthy ecosystems. Some plant species are actually adapted to fire. For instance, lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) have serotinous cones (seeds are released in response to an environmental trigger such as fire). These seeds are retained in the tree canopy for long periods until a fire burns through the stand, releasing thousands of seeds as the resin seal enclosing the cones melts. This feature allows lodgepole pine to reproduce prolifically following a fire.

Fire Regimes

The Pacific Northwest includes many types of vegetation and fire regimes, from frequent surface fires to infrequent high severity fires.

High severity fire regimes are generally located in cool, wet environments at higher elevations where subalpine forests are located. These forests typically consist of subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and whitebark pine. Fire intervals can range greatly (100-300 years), and typically destroy entire stands.

Moderate severity fire regimes tend to occur at mid-elevation zones where dry Douglas-fir forests persist. Other tree species found within this zone include grand fir, subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, western red cedar, western hemlock and western larch. Moderate severity fires occur at intervals of 25 to 100 years and leave a mosaic of lightly burnt to severely burned areas.

Low severity fire regimes are characterized by fires that occur at frequent intervals (1-25 years). Because fuels have a limited time to accumulate in these areas, returning fires tend to be of low intensity. Ponderosa pine forests are indicative of the low severity fire regime.

giant sequoia burn scars
Burn scars (white arrows) in the cross section of a giant sequoia. The numbers represent the year each fire occurred. Photo: Tom Swetnam.

Historic Conditions

Historically, the Pacific Northwest was subject to fires of a variety of frequencies, intensities and extents. How do we know what the historic fire regimes were? Some information comes from human sources such as records of explorers or from land surveyors as they were establishing section corners. Some information comes from the forested ecosystem itself, such as the presence of charcoal layers in the soil and the even-aged character of some forests. Trees themselves record history through the growth rings that develop each year. When a fire burns through an area, the growth rings may be scarred. A fire scar tells us the year the fire occurred and may also reveal the season of fire occurrence based upon the position of the scar (photo).

Historically, the dry forests of the Pacific Northwest experienced low and mixed severity fire regimes. Low severity, frequent fires eliminated fuel ladders; elevated tree crown bases; reduced competition for site resources among surviving trees, shrubs, and herbs; promoted the growth of a low and patchy shrub and herb cover; and cycled nutrients from foliage and branches into the soil. This resulted in forests dominated by large, widely spaced, fire-tolerant ponderosa pine with little accumulation of coarse woody debris on the forest floor. Severe fire behavior and effects were uncharacteristic of dry forest-dominated landscapes.

Current Conditions

Wildfire size, severity and frequency have increased, particularly in the lower elevation dry forests. This is due in part to past and present fire suppression efforts. These forests now contain heavy fuel loads, a shift in the dominant tree species, smaller than average tree size and multi-layered canopies that act as fuel ladders. These conditions result in high intensity fires in areas that previously did not experience them.

In addition to wildfire size, severity and frequency, fire suppression efforts have affected general forest health. Douglas-fir and true firs are not as well adapted to dry sites as ponderosa pine and western larch. As a result these firs suffer physiological stress when subjected to hot, dry summers and, especially, drought. Stressed trees are more likely to succumb to insect and disease problems such as bark beetles and root disease. The presence of great numbers of stressed and dying trees offers an abundance of food to sustain insect populations and lead to insect outbreaks of epidemic proportions.

Models projecting climate change and fire patterns indicate that the frequency and extent of fire will increase due to increased temperatures, earlier spring snow melt and longer fire seasons. These projections suggest that there is an immediate need for forest managers to mitigate and adapt to increased wildfire events in order to sustain forest landscapes.

Accumulated fuels in dry forests need to be reduced so that when fire occurs, rather than becoming a conflagration that destroys the entire stand, it is more likely to burn along the surface at low-moderate intensity, consuming many small trees and restoring forest resilience to future drought, insect and disease problems and wildfire. Various combinations of thinning, slash treatments and prescribed burning can be used for restoration. Visit the Washington State Department of Natural Resources website for information about cost-share opportunities to help private landowners in eastern Washington with these tasks.

Most fires are human caused, often due to neglected campfires, sparks, irresponsibly discarded cigarettes and more often than not: debris burning. Significantly fewer fires may be started by taking greater caution. Check online for the current fire danger and outdoor burning restrictions in your county.

By Melissa Fischer, forest health specialist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, melissa.fischer@dnr.wa.gov

Wildfire Corner: Protecting your Home from Wildfire

home survived wildfire
Fire prevention steps, including several recommended by the national Firewise program, helped to spare this eastern Washington home from wildfire in 2012.

Pine needles, dry leaves, a recycle bin full of newspaper, dead plants. What do these items have in common? They can easily start on fire from a single ember.

Embers are small pieces of burning material that are carried into the air during a wildfire and can be carried over a mile before they fall to the ground. If these embers land on some dead leaves, dead needles, newspaper, cardboard or any other flammable material, they may start another fire. If this happens on your deck, roof or next to your house, that small ember could start a fire that grows and ignites your house.

Typically during a wildfire, the ember shower can spread more than a mile ahead of the main fire front. This exposes homes to the wildfire even when the smoke is still in the distance. Often, the ember shower is accompanied by high winds that blow the embers sideways. Embers going sideways instead of falling from the sky can slip under decks, porches and other places to start your home on fire.

Homeowners can take some simple steps to reduce the chances that an ember will start a fire on or next to their home.

Vents in soffits, eaves, crawlspaces and elsewhere — look for any opening around your house where an ember could possible slip through and start a fire. Make sure these vents are screened with 1/8-inch mesh.

  • Doors — even on outbuildings — should be tight fitting with no gaps around the frame.
  • Flowerboxes — keep them watered with healthy plants. Remove dried up, dead foliage.
  • Woodpiles — keep them at least 30 feet from structures.
  • Roof and rain gutters — inspect to make sure they are free of leaves, conifer needles and other burnable debris.
  • Decks and porches — install screen, siding or other material to prevent embers from blowing underneath.
  • Garbage cans and recycling bins — don’t leave them open and filled with paper or other flammable material. Use tight-fitting lids that will not blow off during the high winds typical around large wildfires.

Finally, before you leave on a summer or early fall vacation, do a fire safety check around your house at the same time that you do a security check. Look for items that could be ignited by an ember and move them away from your house.

These simple steps may help your home survive an ember shower from the next wildfire.

Click here to get more information on Be Ember Aware or call your local fire district or Washington State Department of Natural Resources office.

  • Northeast Region Office, Colville: 509-684-7474
  • Southeast Region Office, Ellensburg: 509-925-8510
  • Western Washington: 360-902-1391
  • Firewise tips and contacts on the Washington DNR website
  • Firewise Communities: a national non-profit that brings neighbors together to reduce their community’s wildfire risks

2016 Marks 25 Years Since ‘Firestorm 1991’

Firestorm 1991
Image: A Spokane-area subdivision during Firestorm 1991. Photo: historylink.org

October 16, 2016, marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the wildfire outbreak — Fire Storm ‘91 — that demonstrated the deadly hazards that can occur when urban development encroaches on wildlands.

The City of Spokane’s fire central dispatch center received its first wildfire call of the day at 8:49 a.m. on Oct 16. By noon all available county, local and Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fire resources had been committed to contain an unprecedented outbreak of wildfires in the area. By 9:00 p.m. local dispatch centers had fielded some 2,000 fire-related calls.

When everything finally calmed down and numbers were tallied it was discovered that 92 separate wildfires had burned more than 35,000 acres over a four-county area that included Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane and Stevens counties. In all, 114 homes were destroyed and two fatalities were linked to the fires.

1991 Fire Storm impactWeather was a major factor on this day. No precipitation had been recorded in the previous 41 days and northeast Washington was in its fifth year of lower than average precipitation. Wind gusts of up to 62 mph on Oct. 16 caused the fires to spread rapidly. Wind also was a factor in fire starts when gusts pushed trees into powerlines.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) case study on Fire Storm ’91 concluded that homeowners can indeed take steps to reduce the risks of losing their homes and other structures to wildfire by creating “defensible space” to reduce flammability and fire intensity of the land surrounding their homes.

home-loss-vs-defensible-spaceThe NFPA also found that during Fire Storm ’91, homes that had 529 feet of defensible space had a 50 percent lower chance of being destroyed during the fire (see table: Home Loss vs. Defensible Space).

Since 1991 we have had numerous fire seasons where we lost structures. One common fact in all these fires is that homeowners can make a big difference by creating defensible space that reduces wildfire risks to their homes.

Firewise

In 2002, the Firewise Community recognition program was launched to encourage homeowners to work with neighbors to reduce the impact of wildfire to their communities. Washington state residents have taken this message to heart; our state has the third highest number of Firewise Communities in the nation at 135. In 2016, we added 23 new Firewise Communities, the highest number of new communities in the nation. By the end of 2016 both of these numbers will have increased.

Washington State DNR has a goal of making Washington state the leader with the most Firewise Communities in the nation. To help communities become Firewise-recognized DNR created the Firewise Challenge and offers grants to help communities make themselves more resilient to the next wildfire.

If you want to learn more about what you can do to protect your home or your community from the next wildfire, call your local DNR region office. Be sure to also ask about grants available to help you and your neighbors become a Firewise Community.

For more information on making your home or community safe from wildfire, please call or visit a DNR regional office near you:

  • Northeast Region Office, Colville: 509-684-7474
  • Southeast Region Office, Ellensburg: 509-925-8510
  • Western Washington: 360-902-1391
  • Washington DNR website: www.dnr.wa.gov/firewise
  • Firewise Communities: www.firewise.org