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Backyard Burns Begin ... BUT

posted Jul 6, 2014, 5:04 PM by Joe Christy
Last Monday, December 9, CAL FIRE Unit Chief Scotty Jalbert lifted the burn ban for Santa Cruz County, which means that backyard burn season is on after more than a week's delay.

BUT: We only got a little over 1" of rain last weekend, and while it's stayed very cold and we have good Relative Humidity (RH) recoveries at night, nonetheless daytime RH plummets every day. I.E. it's still *scary* dry. Yesterday the Bonny Doon Fire Safe Council was out covering our burn piles because we feel that it's crazy to try and burn them until we get more rain.

I certainly don't mean to tell anyone what they should with their own property, but consider the following: After peaking at 27% last Saturday evening, fuel moisture levels are back down to the single digits. As I write this, fuel moisture at the Ben Lomond Camp is 6%, which is below where it stood north of Yosemite the day the Rim Fire started last summer. While we were tromping around yesterday, I did some less scientific sampling of dry fuel moistures: random handfuls of leaf litter and duff are still crunchy when I pick them up, pretty much every branch less than 4" on the ground snapped easily, and the moss on tree limbs, which was vibrant green and damp on Saturday, is dry and dusty again.

If you do choose to burn in the immediate future, be sure you have a shovel and a charged hose at hand at all times and don't leave your fire unattended for a moment. Make sure you have a thermos of something warm to drink, snacks, etc. with you when you set out in the morning, so you don't have to go back inside. Having someone to spell you would be a good idea if you choose not to exercise the male prerogative or can't hold it all day.

If you choose to wait to burn, it's a good idea to cover your burn pile now, while it's still dry, in order to burn efficiently later on. If the center of a burn pile is dry, it will ignite easily and quickly generate enough heat to readily burn additional damp stuff from uncovered feeder piles. (BTW, who would be interested in another Backyard Burn Workshop?)

No matter when you choose to burn, you should get a free backyard burn permit from the Monterey Unified Air Pollution Control District [MBUAPCD], available nearly instantly online at, or call Isabel Navoa at 831-647-9411 ext. 205. They've got much more information and clearer instructions online now than last year. You'll need to know your burn status zone. Unfortunately, the online map is still too hard for my aging eyes to read. Suffice to say that almost all of Bonny Doon is in Zone 33, though lower elevations to the west, generally below Smith Grade, are in Zone 31. If you live off of lower Alba Road, you might well be in the San Lorenzo Valley Smoke Sensitive Area, in which case there are a passel more regulations to help get the valley off the statewide air quality wall of shame this winter; please contact MBUAPCD to find out more.

Before you start in the morning, or even better, late in the afternoon the day before, you should check the Air Board's daily burn status 1-800-CAL-BURN (1-800-225-2876), or online at . Be aware that they reach their decision solely on the basis of air quality, and the best smoke dispersion often occurs on windy days, which also are when you are most likely to see spot fires from firebrands some distance away from your piles, demanding increased vigilance. If you are concerned about the safety of burning at all on an Air Board burn day, a call to the Bonny Doon Volunteers at 426-1561, or CAL FIRE at 426-3131 can clear that up.

Finally please be sure that your piles are cold and damp by 4pm, as per regulation. The Fire Safe Council returns to check our piles throughout the evening and, for safety, you should too. 

If you find all this too daunting, the Fire Safe Council can help you organize your neighborhood and get the County Fire Chief's chipper to dispose of a neighborhood's worth of cut and centrally piled *GREEN* wood waste. We can also put you in touch with local contractors who may be willing to tackle dry wood waste; this involves considerable wear and tear on a chipper.

To reach the Bonny Doon Fire Safe Council, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, email us at:, write us at 150 McGivern Way, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, or call us at (831)515-8389. Please consider a tax-exempt donation to help keep our community safe.