Check the Warnings Before You Burn

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Keep fires small, avoid bonfires that can get out of control.
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“Building Wood Fires,” by Annette McGivney, guides reader through building fires indoors and out.

Building Wood Fires: Techniques and Skills for Stoking the Flames Both Indoors and Out (Countryman Know How)(Countryman Press, 2018), explores different fireplaces to keep your house warm in the winter. McGivney shares recipes meant to be cooked over an open flame. Use the step-by-step instruction to build your own fire pit and cook the recipes in your own backyard. Find this excerpt in Chapter 4, “Backyard Fire.”

To Burn or Not to Burn

There are few places in the United States these days where the environment is moist and stable enough to safely have a wood- burning fire any time of year. Investigating local restrictions should be the first line of action in deciding whether or not to have a fire in your backyard. A call to the municipal fire department or a search on the city’s website should produce the information you need. However, if you are in a rural area that is unregulated or you simply can’t locate information about whether or not it is OK to have a fire on a particular day, here are some guidelines:

Red Flag Warning

This term is used by the National Weather Service when fire weather forecasters determine there are “extreme burning conditions” in a particular geographic region. The criteria for a red flag warning involves an area that has experienced a dry spell of a week or more, or the conditions occur during a dry time of year such as fall. The other parameters are: a sustained wind speed of 15 mph or greater; a relative humidity of 25 percent or less, and a temperature greater than 75°F. Wood burning fires should not take place on red flag days. And even natural gas or propane fires can be unruly in extreme wind with flames going out or licking items nearby.

National Fire Danger Rating System

This set of indices used by fire managers on all U.S. Forest Service lands is an assessment of that day and the next day’s fire danger in specific regions. While these ratings help land managers with recreation planning and anticipating fire hazards, the system is also handy for recreationists on or near the public lands. The rating is likely familiar to anyone who has camped in a Forest Service campground and seen the Smokey Bear sign displaying the fire danger level for that day. An interactive map giving the daily ratings can be found on the U.S. Forest Service Wildland Fire Assessment System website.

Follow This Guide for Interpreting the Forest Service Fire Ratings:

Low –  Fuels do not ignite easily from small embers but a more intense heat source, such as lightning, may start fires.

Moderate –  Fires can start from most accidental causes. Most wood fires will spread slowly to moderately, although they will burn quickly through dry grasses. Fires are not likely to become serious and are easy to control.

High –  Fires can start easily and unattended campfires and brush fires are likely to escape out of control. Fires can become serious and spread rapidly unless they are put out while they are still small.

Very high –  Small fires can quickly become large fires and exhibit extreme fire intensity, such as long- distance spotting. These fires will often become much larger and longer lasting wildfires.

Extreme –  Fires of all types start quickly and burn intensely. Spot fires are probable making these fires very difficult and dangerous to fight.

Think About the Triangle

“When considering whether or not to have a fire in your backyard, you want to consider three critical factors influencing fire behavior: weather, fuels, and topography,” says retired firefighter Mark Shiery. These factors determine what will happen after a fire has started, especially if it gets out of control. The three criteria provide a gauge used by U.S. Forest Service managers as well as fire weather forecasters for the National Weather Service. Weather that is conducive to wildfire involves high temperatures, low humidity, and wind— in any combination. But weather alone will not cause a wildfire and that is where the fuel level comes in. The more fuel that is dry and closely spaced raises the threat factor. In the forest, the fuel comes from trees and the understory. But in residential areas homes are the fuel. Topography can increase the threat when fire happens in hilly or steeply sloped areas that give the flames a runway for picking up speed.

“You have to think about how are all these factors going to combine together,” notes Shiery. “And the biggest concern is wind. If all of a sudden, wind takes over, then the fire is out of control and you can’t stop it. The embers are flying and can land faraway in places you can’t see.”

Fire Keeper: Mark Shiery

Mark Shiery says he first became “smitten with the fire bug” when he was getting a degree in Forestry from the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s. Since then he has worked with fire in just about every capacity— as a hotshot fighting wildland fires for the U.S. Forest Service and as a structure firefighter for the City of Flagstaff. And somewhere in between Shiery worked as a logger.

Early in his career, Shiery traveled all over the West fighting fires on public lands as part of hotshot crews. Wildland fire fighting back then was like guerilla warfare with little technology for communication or other support. “It was not the sophisticated operation that it is today,” laughs Shiery. “We would just get dropped off and work as long as it took to put out the fire. We didn’t get time off and there were no supplies coming in.”

Shiery spent two months in 1988 working on the fire in Yellowstone National Park. Nearly eight hundred thousand acres burned and a crew of more than nine thousand firefighters battled the blaze. “The fire burned so hot that I could see columns of gas being released from the trees and rising up before the fire reached them,” recalls Shiery. As a municipal firefighter Shiery helped establish a wildland fire program for the city of Flagstaff. Like many rural areas in the West, Flagstaff bumps up against large stretches of national forest and is at significant risk for wildfires within the city limits.

The program Shiery helped create uses the same principles for minimizing wildfire on public lands but applies them to residential areas in the city. In addition to banning uncovered, wood burning fires in backyards, the program encourages residents to clear their yards of dry pine needles and debris and also promotes thinning of forests inside the city limits.

Shiery is now retired but still consults for the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies on fire safety and management. He especially enjoys camping and sitting around a campfire in the forest. And his extensive professional fire experience helps him appreciate things that the average camper might not.

“When my buddies and I find a fire ring that is full of burned wood, we are delighted because we know that wood will light and burn easily to get our fire going,” he says. “We call it wood that has experience.”

Avoid a Bonfire

Regardless of the fire triangle conditions, a large fire is hard to control as well as safely extinguish. Flagstaff, Arizona, municipal firefighter Jeff Bierer recommends using no more firewood at one time than can fit in a five- gallon bucket. Having the bucket near the fire pit to use as a measure can help prevent the constant temptation of throwing another log on the fire just out of habit or boredom.

Shiery also offers an additional way to keep things under control: “If people are backing up, then you have too much fuel on the fire.”

Also, always have a bucket of water and a water hose nearby in case embers cause spot fires in your yard. And once the party is over, the process for putting out a backyard fire is the same as for extinguishing a campfire.


Reprinted with Permission from Building Wood Fires: Techniques and Skills for Stoking the Flames Both Indoors and Out (Countryman Know How) by Annette McGivney and Published by Countryman Press, 2018.