Winter pile burning project led by the City of Santa Fe and Forest Stewards Guild. Credit: Esmé Cadiente, Forest Stewards Guild

Topic: Communications / Outreach Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Winter Pile Burning Highlights: Snow Tips, Outreach and a Surprise

Authors: Allison Jolley

Because FAC Net is a national network, “winter” means different things for different members. Before moving to the Bay Area, I lived near Lassen Volcanic National Park, a California winter wonderland where 20-40 feet of snow and frequent blizzard and avalanche conditions result in little mitigation activity during most winters. In other areas, like Southern California, winters are often too warm for controlled burning. And then there are places like the foothills of the Rockies, where winter may present ideal burning conditions, or involve wildfires such as those recently seen in Boulder, Colorado.

Many of our members, however, live in places where winter is a great time for pile burning due to lessened wildfire risk and air quality-induced restrictions. A few such members shared some of their recent pile burning accomplishments, stories and tips.

Doesn’t Snow Inhibit Fire?

Several members shared tricks for successful pile burning in snowy conditions. Eytan Krasilovsky of the Forest Stewards Guild emphasized the importance of pulling snow away from the periphery of piles prior to lighting them to enhance ventilation. Todd Armbruster, Firewise coordinator for Cook County, Minnesota, explained that they recently had to shovel about 2 feet of snow off each pile and then often had to follow up with a chainsaw to break up the material and increase oxygen exposure. Todd had an easier time lighting the county’s south-facing piles, something to keep in mind when determining which piles to save for winter burning.

Snow covered pile.

Snow covered pile. Credit: Todd Armbruster, Cook County, Minnesota

In the Pacific Northwest, Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition (CWSC)’s partners at the Wenatchee River Ranger District conducted quite a bit of burning this winter (1,530 acres!). They attributed part of their success to the use of a relatively inexpensive, wax-coated paper. Before winter, they placed the paper on partially constructed piles and then weighed the paper down with the remaining portion of the pile. The paper kept their piles relatively dry despite snowy conditions, making them easier to light.

The Early Bird Gets the Burn

Even though actions like those above can reduce snow-related challenges, burning early certainly helped advance some members’ progress. In Mark Brehl’s words,

If winter weather starts out wet, don’t wait for conditions to improve. Get on it. Pile conditions may not improve and could deteriorate further if wet weather persists. If there’s high confidence that a heavy storm is coming, plan to get out in front of it and begin burning.

Eytan shared a similar sentiment:

Pile construction and age matters. Old or slumped/spread piles are challenging to ignite and require lots of person-power to manage. Go after them and don’t fall behind. The longer they sit out there, the harder it is and the longer the risk sits out there too.

Firefighter igniting a pile

Pile burning near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Credit: Esmé Cadiente, Forest Stewards Guild

Outreach: Start Early, Diversify Media Channels and Messengers

As part of a 75-acre fuel reduction project, Rapid City Fire Department (RCFD) burned 400 piles on more than 30 acres of steep terrain during the past three winters. The work occurred on a ridgeline that physically divides Rapid City and also makes up the Skyline Wilderness Recreation Area. The project area is in the center of town, exposed and highly visited, so it is in plain sight of many residents as well as recreationists. The first winter they began pile burning, RCFD performed robust traditional media outreach and some social media outreach at the beginning of their burning. Their public service announcement was broadcast on multiple television stations, in the newspaper and on the radio. They began lighting piles during a snow storm when there was already 4-6 inches of snow on the ground. Still, dispatch received more than 500 phone calls within the first two hours—calls to report a wildfire, not to ask about the smoke. Consequently, RCFD realized two important things that year: (1) traditional media outreach was not sufficient and (2) outreach needs to begin well in advance of burning.

Piles burning in a snow-covered forest, with Rapid City in the background

Piles burning on a ridgeline that divides Rapid City. Credit: Tim Weaver, Rapid City Fire Department

These social media posts received several likes and shares/retweets.

Sample Facebook post and tweet during Rapid City Fire Department’s pile burning.

Their outreach approach has evolved to the point that this year, RCFD used a multi-channel approach to social media both before and during their pile burning. Consequently, dispatch received close to zero “wildfire-reporting” calls. And their social media posts had high engagement.

Speaking of social media channels, Oregon’s Project Wildfire recently blogged about where community members can find current burning information. Multiple partners are communicating on several different channels regarding burning operations in the area.

Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership reported that it is important to coordinate with your state’s local Department of Transportation regarding permits and signage. Also, a creative way to reduce residential smoke and enhance public relations is to distribute free firewood (wood that would otherwise have been included in piles).

New Technology

In addition to consulting National and Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for local hourly weather conditions, Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership started using the app WindNinja to predict winds. Mark noted that among other variables, the app considers topography and is the most accurate forecasting model that he’s worked with thus far.

Wildest Surprise

When it comes to the unexpected, Dovetail Inc.’s Gloria Erickson takes the cake. While conducting residential burning, her friend lit a pile and guess what came out? A bear! Take-away: light your piles from one end to give critters big and small time to relocate.

Hungry for More?

Members mentioned above are a trove of knowledge, so I recommend contacting them if you’re interested in learning more. Also, Jonathan Bruno’s Pile Burning Lessons Learned blog outlines five best practices for pile burning, so be sure to check that out as well.

Editor’s note: FAC Net does not endorse WindNinja or any other for-profit enterprise.

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