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Brush Fires | Summer 2010 Out Here Magazine

Prevent accidental wildfires by burning correctly


By Noble Sprayberry
Photography by Anthony R. Alter


A single wayward, smoldering ember can turn brush burning into a scramble to protect property and life.


Each year, firefighters battle an average of more than 75,000 wildfires. Most are in western states, but potential for trouble exists throughout the country.


Ken Frederick understands the danger first-hand. He fought western wildfires for 13 years and now works as a public affairs specialist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.


Safely burning brush begins with the weather.


"Wind is critical to having a fire escape," he says. Not only can gusts send burning embers into dry grass, rotten wood, or leaves piled beneath a deck, wind also provides the flow of oxygen needed for a fire to grow.


Controlling a burn, though, goes beyond avoiding windy days.


Too often, people will watch a fire while it burns, but will leave after it dies down.


"You think the fire is out," he says. "In many cases, the fire is not out. If the wind comes up and blows an ember just a few feet away, it can cause a fire just because there's no one there to see it."

Other less-expected problems can also arise. Fire can go underground, burning along rotten tree roots to escape an area otherwise considered safe. 

"You want to make sure your burn area is cleared, not of what's just above the surface but also what's below it," Frederick says.

Anyone burning on a slope should pay attention to one of nature's primary laws: gravity.

If a pile of brush rests on a slope, dig a shallow trench down-slope of the burn before striking a match. The trench will catch any burning debris tumbling out of the flames, says Frederick, who has seen rolling, flaming pinecones spread fires.

Pay attention when stacking brush, because poorly ordered piles can tip while burning and spread flames. Build the pile in a conical shape and make the base much larger than its height.

A 4-foot-high pile might require a base of 6 feet or more — dimensions making it more likely for the fire to collapse inward than tumbling outward, Frederick says.

Starting the fire offers its own risk. With great caution, a mix of three-parts diesel to one-part gasoline can be used as an accelerant to help start fires. The diesel slows the combustion of the gas, but the mix is volatile and use requires precaution.

Use no more than 1 cup of the mixture poured into the center of a brush pile. Light it with a burning cloth attached to a 6-foot-long stick. Stand well away from the pile and always store unused fuel at least 50 feet from the burn, Frederick says.

Also consider choosing the date for a burn the same way as national land managers do.

"We burn ... after a couple of inches of rain," Frederick says. "Even if a pile tips over, there's no problem."

Nobel Sprayberry writes from Phoenix, Ariz.