Best Practices for Backyard Burns

At the End of Fire Season

·      Consider chipping your cut vegetation.

·      Get a permit from Monterey Bay Air Resources District. The permit is good for the whole burn season. Burn Season is normally between November 1 and April 30, but in 2013-2014 our fire season never ended.

·      Choose a spot to burn at least 100’ from the nearest inhabited structure. Your property must also be more than ½ acre in size.

·      Clear a ring with 10' diameter down to bare mineral soil at least 12” wide where you intend to burn.

·      In the center, build a loose pile no more than 4’ in diameter and 4’ in height, by placing alternate layers of cut vegetation from your property oriented at right angles to each other, like a log cabin.

·      It’s best to build your initial pile out of lighter vegetation.

·      Stack the rest of your cut vegetation in feeder piles outside your ring with the butt ends facing inwards.

·      Cover your piles to keep them dry. We use waxed burn (Kraft) paper, which can double as kindling. More expensive tarps work fine until they develop leaks, sooner than their cost would justify.

a properly ringed and papered burn pile

·      Wait until the cut vegetation is well-cured: 30 days for material less than 2” in diameter, 60 days for material 2”-6” in diameter. You can burn material more than 6” in diameter after 180 days, but why not buck it up for firewood instead?

The Day Before

·      Check the MBARD’s burn day status after 3pm the day before you intend to burn. While we don’t need a daily permit this year, burning on a no burn day is still illegal and you could well be fined.

·      Check the weather report for winds with gusts over 15 mph and Red Flag Days. While you don’t need a burn permit from the Santa Cruz County Fire in Bonny Doon, there is definitely a tension between fire safety and smoke safety. The days with the best smoke dispersion are days with gusty wind, when outdoor burning is foolhardy. Our new normal features Red Flag days, even during rainy season, when burning is so dangerous that open flames are illegal our doors.

·      Let your neighbors know that you are planning to burn.

On the Burn Day

·      Have a charged hose where you intend to burn. A spot fire can get out of control in the time it takes to turn the water on.


  Have metal tools by the fire: a shovel, and a rake at very minimum. A McLeod is the best tool. A pitchfork will help shake out any leaves, needles, or debris in your feeder piles. Leaves, needles, or debris will burn dirty and can even extinguish your fire, so it’s illegal to burn them. They are better spread thinly or composted.

  Light your fire after 9am. If your pile doesn’t ignite, it’s too damp to burn. Do not help it along with gasoline, kerosene, etc. Thin slivers of dry conifer heart wood or dead dry manzanita make good kindling.

a McLeod
light my fire

·      Once the initial flames have died down and the fire is good and hot, start feeding the fire, being careful to keep it hot and open. You’ll be amazed that cut vegetation burns about 4 times as fast feeding a small hot fire than a single huge pile in an atavistic blaze. Burning Man is in August, on a barren playa in the desert!

feeding the fire

·       Have a responsible adult tending the fire at all times.

·      If you haven’t already burned everything by 3pm, stop feeding your fire and start stirring the hot ashes.

·      To be sure everything is consumed, we push everything together into a volcano shape, then 5-10 minutes later spread it out, and after another 5-10 minutes repeat the cycle. The volcano will concentrate the heat in the buried material which will then burn cleanly when spread and exposed to air.

spreading and cooling a fire on the way to extinction

photo courtesy of FireWise of Southwest Colorado

·      Your fire must be cold and damp by 4pm. Add water and stir. Put the back of your hand right above the remains; if you feel heat, add more water.