When you’re new to a rural area, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll make a few unintentional blunders. How would you know not to fill bird feeders in summer until bears tear them down in search of convenience food? Neighbors (wildlife and human) can help you learn from your mistakes. For example, if you speak out of turn at a session of local government, they’ll give you a refresher on Robert’s Rules of Order. You don’t have to understand all the rules of rural life – like why pontoon boats always go around your lake counter-clockwise. But if the neighbors tell you that’s how it’s done, trust me: They are not joking. Go counter-clockwise. Always.

There is one rookie mistake you really, really don’t want to make, though. So let me tell you in advance how not to burn brush.

For starters, rural areas are generally served by volunteer fire departments. If your little brush fire gets out of hand (more on this later), it takes a while for volunteers to respond to the fire station and get equipment and personnel to your location. Meanwhile, a little fire can get a lot more out of hand.

Last spring my husband and I and other members of our volunteer fire department met the new owner of a cabin after his small brush fire spread into the woods. As the crow flies, that cabin is less than half a mile from my house, but I had never been back there. The driveway, if you want to call it that, does not invite idle curiosity. I missed my chance for a ride in on the fire department brush truck, and also the UTV we can pump water from. So I bummed a ride in the back seat of a 4-wheel drive squad car. The nice young deputy helped me load it up with buckets of drinking water, Gatorade, ice, and other supplies we use to prevent heat exhaustion in volunteer firefighters battling a wildland fire. Then he took me on a ride that convinced me to remain a law-abiding citizen – or if I change my ways to do it someplace where the ride to the hoosegow is not so rough.

That was a nice spring day, so the new owner of that cabin wanted to tidy up the place. “Tidy” seems to be a common goal of people from the city who buy recreational property Up North and in other rural areas. True, wood that’s dead and down can fuel a wildland fire that might threaten your property. But a small brush pile or two tucked well away from anything that might throw off sparks or embers? That just makes it look like you care about the place but appreciate a little wildness. I highly recommend arranging lawn chairs so they face a small brush pile. Take your morning coffee out there with the rabbits, birds, and bugs the pile shelters while you get in the right frame of mind for not over-tidying. 

Our new neighbor didn’t mean for his tidying to get out of hand. He had never burned brush before and thought he was being responsible by having a rake and hose at the ready and staying with the brush pile while it burned. If he missed a few key steps it wasn’t because he was thoughtless. He just had no idea what responsible brush burning looks like where a fire department isn’t just up the street.

For example, in parts of Wisconsin (including my area), the Department of Natural Resources requires burning permits except when the ground is completely covered with snow. So if at all possible, folks here burn their brush piles before we lose that snow cover. That way there’s little chance of a stray ember igniting dry material and getting a chance to spread. In some states, you might need to get a permit from your local fire department. Rules and regulations vary greatly in different regions. Oklahoma, for example, advises against winter burning because their snow normally melts so quickly it isn’t much inclined to keep the fire contained.

Here in northern Wisconsin, when the snow cover is gone the burn permit you need to get is free and available online. Since our new neighbor didn’t know he needed a permit, he also didn’t get the accompanying helpful information about how to burn safely (available in English, Spanish, Hmong, and Polish) or conditions and hazards, which the Wisconsin DNR updates daily. Interactive maps at the site show current wildland fires and prescribed burns and flag special burning restrictions. For example, in 2019 a devastating wind event called a derecho hit my area. So the increased fuel load on the ground still puts us at an elevated risk for wildland fires and special fire restrictions may apply.

(Photo by Donna Kallner)

Our new neighbor was just south of the blowdown area covered by those special burning restrictions. I assume that worked in his favor with the responding DNR officer, along with his genuine remorse and the fact that he called 911 sooner rather than later. It definitely didn’t hurt that he wasn’t burning other materials besides yard waste. 

Burning other materials was common in rural areas when I was younger. Farmers used to throw an old tire on a big brush pile to help it burn completely after lighting it with some accelerant that should only be used by a trained pyrotechnician. Hopefully, they used equipment not available to everyone to scrape a large area surrounding the pile down to bare soil before throwing a match. We thought we smelled burning tire once last year only it was probably a meth lab operator burning evidence in an outdoor fire pit. 

Our fire department has responded to many a “brush fire” being used to dispose of building or demolition materials and other trash that’s not permitted. Sometimes you can tell from a mile away by the color of the smoke what’s in that fire. Good luck trying to fool the DNR. Instead, I suggest showing respectful remorse along with your burn permit and the reasonable precautions taken before burning.

Top of the list of reasonable precautions here is not burning at all during the period between snowmelt and green-up. Where I live, spring is the most critical fire season. It doesn’t take long for grasses, pine needles, and leaf litter to dry out and become easily combustible fuel. As new growth pushes up, there can be a pocket of air between that green growth and all the dry fuel above it, making it easy for a fire to sweep through an area. This is where your “little brush fire” can quickly get out of hand.

We almost saw “out of hand” up close in 2002. After building a new house on the same property as our old farmhouse, we used the farmhouse for a training burn for area fire departments. We got the permit, which required an inspection, and prepared in advance for the burn. That included having firefighters on scene and geared up, equipment ready, and a fill site for water less than two miles away – before the structure was burning. We scheduled the training for after we were pretty sure the surrounding vegetation would be fully greened up. And still, the wind picked up just enough to carry embers from that fire onto grasses dry enough to add a little wildland fire exercise (and some unexpected excitement) to the training.

Sparks and embers can travel a surprising distance. Whether the source is a training burn, a chainsaw, a lawnmower on fire, or an innocent brush pile burn, a live ember can travel as much as a mile. When it finds fuel and oxygen, it may not matter that you have the garden hose and a rake at the ready. (Side note: If you have to stomp out embers you do not want to be wearing boots with nylon uppers that can melt.)

And your rural neighbors will be calling 911 to report any smoke they see. If there’s a burn permit on file and the 911 dispatcher has that information, Dispatch may make an educated guess from the location and caller(s)’s description that the report is associated with a planned burn. Dispatch may still notify the DNR, fire chief and/or law enforcement to check it out, rather than assume all is well and be wrong. Or they may call for a full fire department response on the premise that it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

In any case, you’re liable to get some company, and they may not all be in uniform. In a rural area, a volunteer firefighter who is nearby may go directly to the scene to size up the situation and start calling in additional resources. Some of us can look a bit scruffy coming from work or our own spring clean-up chores. 

And to be honest, we’d rather meet you at the boat landing and tell you to go counter-clockwise around the lake.

Donna Kallner writes from rural Langlade County, Wisconsin, where she’s a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department.

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