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Safe Debris Burning
In many rural areas, pile burning and burn barrels are viable ways to get rid of vegetation debris – tree branches, brush cuttings, needles, and leaves. And with proper site preparation and forethought, people can burn this sort of debris with reasonable safety.
 
Taking the time to plan an open burning project, preparing the burn site, and equipping yourself with basic fire suppression tools before lighting the match will dramatically reduce the chance of a burn pile fire getting out of control and becoming a 911 call.
 
Following are seven simple tips to help ensure you have a safe and effective debris burn.

Burning Safely - Tip #1: Call before you burn!
Photo of  Douglas Forest Protection Association Forest Officer Karen Swearington visiting a burn pile site and writing a burn permit
DFPA officer Karen Swearington writes a burn permit
Call your local fire district for permission to burn.  Local fire officials may designate certain days for burning based on weather and wind conditions. In some areas, burning is not allowed at any time.
  • Make sure burning is allowed - Call your local fire department or Oregon Department of Forestry office to learn whether or not a permit is required.  On the day you plan to burn, call to ensure burning is allowed that particular day.  Fire agencies may suspend burning on short notice due to a change in weather conditions.
  • Check the weather - Even on an allowed burning day, local weather fluctuations could make it too dangerous to burn.  Gusty winds, for example, could carry sparks from your burn barrel or pile to flammable brush or grass a considerable distance away.
  • Follow the rules - Comply with the burning regulations of your local fire department or district.
  • Always stay with your fire - Until it is dead out.

Burning Safely - Tip #2: Burn ONLY backyard debris!
Photo of an escaped burn site of illegal materials
An escaped burn of illegal materials
Some plastics, treated lumber, and other manufactured products give off toxic fumes; only burn the backyard debris that is safe to burn. It is illegal to burn plastic, tires, and just about anything else that isn’t from a tree or shrub.

Burning Safely - Tip #3: Prepare the burn site - location, location, location!
Photo of poorly cleared debris burn location that led to an escaped fire
An example of a poorly sited debris burn site
Before burning backyard debris in a pile or burn barrel, prepare the site to reduce the risk of the fire escaping.  Otherwise, flame or sparks may ignite nearby vegetation and cause a wildfire.
 
Follow these simple steps:
  • Choose an appropriate burn site - Select an area where flames, radiant heat, and airborne embers won't set nearby vegetation afire.  Vertical clearance needs to be at least three times the height of the pile. A burning pile of tree branches will send visible flames several feet into the air above the pile, but the invisible heat influence will go even higher. There should be no overhanging limbs or power lines above, and the site needs to be well away from buildings and autos.
  • Clear the ground -  Horizontal clearance should be twice the height of the pile. The ground around the burn sites should be cleared down to mineral soil or gravel out to at least 10 feet in all directions.
  • Assemble necessary equipment - Have a charged garden hose or a fire extinguisher and a shovel available at the site, and keep the surrounding area well watered down during the burn.

Burning Safely - Tip #4: Burn barrel safety!
Graphic illustrating safe debris burn barrel components
A proper burn barrel is essential
Using a burn barrel to dispose of backyard debris can reduce the risk of wildfire.  But make sure that your burn barrel has these features, as illustrated:
  • All-metal construction in good condition  - In addition to inspecting the walls of the barrel, check the bottom to ensure that it hasn't been weakened by rust.
  • Proper ventilation - Three evenly-spaced, three-inch sqaure vents spaced evenly around the rim near ground level.  Each vent must be backed by metal screen.
  • Metal top screen - With 14 gauge wire mesh size of one-fourth inch or finer in 14 to keep sparks from escaping and lighting nearby vegetation on fire.
  • Layer your materials and stir often - Put the smallest twigs and branches – which will ignite quickly - on the bottom of the pile, and stir it often to introduce new oxygen. Keep leaves, needles and bark in an adjacent pile so they can be added to the burning pile after a vigorous heat source has been created. It is illegal to burn plastic, tires, and just about anything else that isn’t from a tree or shrub.

Burning Safely - Tip #5: Think small!
Photo of an escaped debris pile burn in east Lincoln County
An escaped debris pile burn in east Lincoln County
When burning backyard debris, think small.
  • Limit the quantity of materials - Whether its a burn barrel or a pile, limit the quantity of limbs, twigs, and other yard waste that you put on the fire at one time.
  • Add small additional amounts - As material is consumed, adding small additional materials will keep the flame lengths short and reduce the chance of sparks carrying off-site.
  • Never use an accelerant on a burn pile or in a burn barrel - either before or after you light the pile on fire.  Last year, over 50 percent of burn patients at one Oregon burn center stated that they had never before been hurt while using accelerants.
Even though a burn barrel does a better job of containing sparks, a small fire is still the way to go. Flame length is not curtailed by the top screen. And building the fire too large can raise the burning temperature, shortening the service life of the barrel.

Burning Safely - Tip #6: Attend your burn at all times!
A debris burn left unattended for only a few minutes can grow into a costly, damaging wildfire. Keep your charged garden hose or fire extingiusher and a shovel with you at the site at all times, and continue to water the surrounding area during the burn.

Burning Safely - Tip #7: Make sure your burn is really out!
A photo of the aftermath of an escaped debris burn in southwestern Oregon
This escaped debris burn occurred in southwestern Oregon
Like a campfire in the woods thought to have been put out, a burn to dispose of backyard debris can rise from the ashes unexpectedly. Every year in Oregon, wildfires are kindled from debris burns that homeowners thought they had extinguished.
 
Where there’s no smoke, there can still be fire. Days or even weeks after the flame and smoke have gone, a burn pile or burn barrel may still hold heat. A drop in the humidity brought on by a warm spell, combined with a little wind, can reignite the embers and quickly propel them into a damaging wildfire.
 
To ensure that a backyard debris burn is really out, follow these steps:
  • Drown the fire with water, turn over the ashes with a shovel and drown it again. Repeat several times until it is dead out.
  • Check the burn area regularly over the next several days.  Even when a fire stops smoking and appears to be out, an onset of windy, warmer weather days or even weeks later may re-kindle it.
  • At the onset of warm, dry weather, especially when accompanied by wind, check the burn area again, even if it is weeks after the burn.

Safe Debris Burning Public Service Announcement
Photo of burned hillside and forest from an debris burn
The aftermath of an escaped debris burn
Many of us understand something better when we see it in action.  The Oregon Department of Forestry and the Lane Fire Prevention Cooperative have developed this very short Public Service Announcement that illustrates the steps for a safe debris burn.
 
Public Service Announcement - Safe Debris Burning [wmv; 30 seconds; 4 MB]

Learn more . . .
For more information on safe debris burning in your area, contact your local ODF office.