Pile Burning Lessons Learned
Author: FAC Network Participant
Written by: Jonathan Bruno, Chief Operating Officer
Having burned over 5,000 piles in the last few years on public and private property, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP) has learned a few key elements that can help you have successful and safe burns. Here are some of my lessons learned.
1) Planning for pile burning starts before the first tree is felled.
Far too often the workers that are cutting and piling have never been around a pile burn project and are unfamiliar with what is needed to put a pile together for burning. The contractors or staff cut the tree, drag all of the materials and throw it together haphazardly, without thought to what happens next. When the time comes to plan for the burn, the coordinator walks into the unit only to find piles directly under trees, piled with oversized materials or piled altogether incorrectly. Not only do poorly constructed piles create safety and control concerns, they also create management challenges. Here are a few bullets to get the gears rolling:
- There is a time delay regarding treatment of the slash – often green fuels can take 6 months to cure properly. Ensure the landowner understands that piles will sit for a while until cured, and when the conditions are met to burn.
- Don’t pile logs that are too large. We really like to keep our logs under 6-8” in diameter. This ensures proper consumption with minimized smoldering. Pile larger logs on the top of the pile to allow for proper consumption. Logs placed at the bottom will take longer to burn through.
- Do not pile on top of rotten logs, stumps or other materials if possible. Smoldering is a real problem in control and smoke management. Try to minimize piling onto this older material as it is often a challenge to extinguish.
- Pile materials with the cut ends facing out of the pile. Overlap them in layers to create a dense pile.
- If possible, show your contractors or staff the process and what a good pile should look like. CUSP invited contractors and staff that are involved in thinning projects to come out and view a burn. By doing this they learn what challenges are faced when burning.
- If pile burning is a part of the management prescription, consider the amount of fuel you expect to create and guide management for this slash treatment method. When CUSP uses a restoration prescription we always guide the crews to pile in the openings vs. in the shaded or retention areas. When working in a shaded fuel break area, always consider that the pile flame height will be 2.5 to 3 times the height of the pile. In these areas the piles should be smaller and have more separation.
- Be honest with the landowner regarding what it will look like. There will be burn rings and these areas may take a bit of work to recover, depending upon the size of the pile and heat generated from the burn,
2) Always consider the project objectives and timelines.
Because of the delay related to when treatments are completed and when burning can occur, be honest with owners regarding the constraints related to burning. CUSP has one property where the owner was informed that the piles would be burned in the winter. Three years later, due to lack of snow and staffing they are still waiting. This is not a good place to be. Consider alternatives that may make more sense for you and the owner. Chipping, mastication and full tree removal can be used in place of piling.
3) Be realistic.
Cutting a 200-acre unit, reducing the trees by 50 percent, will create an amazing amount of slash and debris. Ask yourself if pile burning is realistic considering the sheer scale of material that will be created. Depending upon the existing density and the desired outcomes it is likely that a forest project could create anywhere from 20-150 piles per acre. CUSP is currently working in a 130-acre area with over 2,500 piles – 19 piles per acre on average with several acres holding more than 60 piles per acre.
Does the area allow for access when the conditions are ideal? As part of the planning process, consider what methods you will use to access your burn sites. Will there be snow measured in feet? If so, you may need to have areas plowed, or arrange for snowmobiles or snowshoes. CUSP uses ATVs on many of our burns due to poor access.
4) Slash management costs must be considered.
We have all heard that pile burning is a cost effective method to treat slash. Pile burning can provide cost savings on the overall cost of treatment; however, the costs are often incurred 6-12 months after the completion of the work. If the project is small in scale the pre-planning costs can be marginal. If the project is larger, CUSP anticipates that the costs will rise significantly. As an example, CUSP completed treatment of a large parcel within Woodland Park, Colorado in 2014. In preparation for pile burning CUSP spent approximately 40 hours working on the burn plan and required permits. Air permits in Colorado cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000 dollars depending upon the size of the project. For this particular property the cost was $100. The planning and permitting cost CUSP approximately $1,000.
In addition to the planning costs, CUSP incurs a significant cost when burning. For an average day we anticipate eight firefighters to undertake burning operations. This cost, per day, can range from $1,152 – $1,700, depending upon the resources. In addition to our staff we partner with other local resources. Often these resources volunteer their time, but you must also consider this value in your overall project cost. Recently on a burn we estimate the total cost for a day of burning to be $1,700 for our staff and partner resources (this cost does not include a pro-rated cost for the permit, only for boots on the ground). On an average day CUSP can burn anywhere from 50-100 piles (5-10 acres), depending upon location of the piles, topography and permit restrictions. This works out to $170 – $340 per acre. While these costs may not seem high, consider that our original per acre cost for cutting and piling was $1,200 per acre. This means that the overall project cost (cutting, piling and burning) was $1,540 per acre.
5) Create strong relationships.
Smoke in the air and flames on the hillside can cause a great deal of commotion. Make sure that you have reached out to everyone and anyone that may have concerns over your activities. CUSP speaks directly with adjacent landowners, community leaders and all partner agencies that may be impacted by our activities. We utilize the NIXEL notification system, reverse 911, and signage to get the word out. Before the burning season we post articles in all of the local newspapers and put information on our website. During burning operations we invite the media to view an active burn, and we have notification signage with our phone number listed. We plan to use this draft notification on a partnership project.
Pile burning is a great tool to reduce fire risk within your community, but you must weigh the costs and benefits. CUSP has been burning for over ten years and continues to learn every day. If you have any questions or are in Colorado and want to join, feel free to get in touch with me.