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Best Practices for Backyard Burns

posted Jan 24, 2015, 3:22 PM by Joe Christy
Since we're in the middle of backyard burn season (generally December 1 through April 30), it's a good time to talk about how best to burn yard waste.
First of all, you need a permit from the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District [MBUAPCD]. The application, still free, is easiest online, though you can also call Isabel Navoa at (831) 647-9411 ext. 205. MBUAPCD has a very thorough brochure about how to fill out the application online. You'll need your fire district (Santa Cruz County Fire), burn zone (North Central Coast - Inland Zone for most of Bonny Doon, with the lower elevation parts of Smith Grade in the North Central Coast - Coastal Zone), your address, your APN from the Santa Cruz County Assessor’s Office online or by calling 454-2002 & pressing 8, the property owner's name, and contact info for the person responsible for the burning.
Next you'll have to prepare your burn and feeder piles. Your burn pile(s) should at least 100' from your neighbor's house. It should be no more than 4'x4' and encircled by a ring about 10' in diameter and 12" wide, scraped down to mineral soil. If the pile is on a hill, then you should have a berm outside the circle on the downhill side, to catch rolling coals. The two basic ways to build a burn pile are to either erect a teepee of branches (<1" in diameter) or build a log cabin of branches of the same size in the center. Fill either loosely with fine fuel like twigs or newspaper, and pile the heavier material outside. Small pieces of pitchy knobcone pine are also excellent starter for inside the central structure. The initial pile should be dry and airy. How dry? Fuels less than 2" in diameter must be cured for 30 days before burning outdoors, those between 2" and 6" for 60 days, and over 6" 180 days (so why not use it for firewood). If you will be burning later, put a tarp over the burn pile. Outside the fire ring make your feeder piles, with the butt end of the branches, etc. facing in.
The afternoon before your burn, check out PFIRS online or call 1-800-225-2876, to verify that the following day is not a "no-burn" day ( with a permit you can burn both on "burn" and "marginal days"). MBUAPCD bases their decision purely on smoke dispersion. They are looking for days with enough wind and atmospheric instability that the mixing layer of the atmosphere is at least 1500' deep; if the smoke from people's chimneys is hovering in a layer below the lowest clouds, you shouldn't be burning. Remember that one in three households in the US have someone with respiratory problems.
What MBUAPCD isn't considering is if it is safe to burn. If it's windy or walking across a carpet makes you spark when you touch a doorknob, then it's probably not safe to burn. Before you start you should also notify your neighbors out of courtesy and the local fire station (only the Fall Creek Station,  831/426-3131, staffed 24x7) to keep them from coming out to your place on a smoke check if someone notices smoke in the air.
Make sure you have a hose, shovel, and metal rake by your burn pile.
When the conditions are right and you're ready light the initial burn pile. Please don't use petroleum products to ease the ignition as the smoke from them is far worse for health than wood smoke. If you can't get you teepee/log cabin to light on its own, stubs of dinner candles will help.
Once the fire has burned down a bit and is quite hot, you can start feeding more fuel from your aptly named feeder piles. The biggest mistake most people make is heaping up a huge pile and trying to burn it all at once. I discovered that I can burn twice as much yard waste in half the time by feeding a smaller fire than trying to get a big pile to burn down once it is choked with heavy ash.
Never leave your fire unattended. It sort of defeats the purpose of maintaining your defensible space if you burn down the neighborhood doing so. At the end of the day (4pm according to regulations) your pile must be out - cold and damp. When you think it is out, first check the heat with the back of your hand, since reflexes will make your fingers curl if the fire is too hot. Stir the ashes, check with the back of your hand again, and then stick a finger into the ashes for the ultimate cold-and-damp test.
If this sounds too daunting, you can contract with Green Waste to add a yard waste container to your pick up, or haul your waste to a County landfill. County landfills occasionally have free yard waste days, so keep an eye peeled. Chipping is another alternative, but that's another story.
Joe Christy,
Jan 24, 2015, 3:22 PM