Cut it, Pile it, Burn it

Two weeks ago we were coming home from church when we saw smoke rising from a neighbor’s hillside.  Fire department and Division of Forestry vehicles and personnel were everywhere.  We later learned that the homeowner had decided to burn an old couch rather than hauling it to the landfill.  Bad move.  The fire jumped from a grassy area and took off up the mountain.  I’m certain the landfill fee would have been much less than the fine incurred.

As we’ve cleared our land we’ve had to burn many, MANY piles of woody debris.  Thankfully, we haven’t had any issues.  This isn’t by accident however.  We take burning very seriously and so should you.  The following are some things to consider before you light that pile…

Know the Law

One key factor to consider before lighting any debris pile is your state’s burning laws.  In West Virginia, for example, our Division of Forestry (DOF) mandates burning brush in the spring (March 1st thru May 31st) and fall (October 1st thru December 31st) is only allowed between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m.  The WV DOF requires a ten foot buffer around all piles and that the person burning is present until the fire is out.  There are hefty fines for failing to obey these fire laws ( ).  You should check with the Division of Forestry or equivalent agency in your state for your specific burning laws.

Be Prepared

It kinda goes without saying that burning brush piles get HOT.  You should remember this when determining where you plan to burn your piles.  If the pile is too close to trees, structures, overhead wires, etc. there could be significant damage.  Give yourself plenty of space before you lay down the first branch.

We’ve learned that the key to removing piles of woody debris is patience.  The temptation is to pile the brush and limbs and try to get rid of it immediately.  The reality is that dry, seasoned material burns much better than green material.  One way to ensure you are working with dry material is to cover your brush pile with a tarpaulin (tarp).   

Be Safe!

Rule #1- Conditions must be perfect or don’t even consider burning!  The perfect day to burn a pile of woody debris is a winter day with snow cover and no wind.  This is where the patients comes in handy again.  We would rather wait a few months and know without a doubt our fire is going to stay put.  When we asked our friend Doug Pickens, a retired fireman, about backyard fires turning into brush fires he said wind was the number one cause.

Rule #2- Use a rake and/or leaf blower to clear out a leaf-free buffer zone around the pile.  You want to get down to the bare dirt.

Rule #3- Make sure you have access to plenty of water in case things get out of hand.

Rule #4- Use paper, cardboard, etc. sparingly to start the fire as they tend to smolder and float away.  And whatever you do…DON’T use gasoline or other fuels to light a brush pile!

When it is time to get things going, make sure you have eye protection, leather gloves, a leaf or garden rake and a pitchfork.

You should keep in mind that once you light a pile you are committed.  We’ve had large chunks of hardwood smolder and burn for three or four days.  You can’t light up then take off.

Discourage wildlife

Brush piles are magnets for wildlife.  There are countless online resources with information on how to construct piles to attract wildlife to your property.  The problem is, animals don’t seem to understand that the majority of our brush piles aren’t intended for occupation.  Over the years we’ve seen birds, mice, chipmunks, lizards, turtles and rabbits evacuating as we prepared to burn piles.  We always kick piles to scare any stragglers away but some animals, like the turtles, tend to stand their ground.  The best way to avoid injuring wildlife while removing the piles is to study the construction of wildlife friendly piles then do just the opposite when building burn piles.

The National Wildlife Federation’s “Wildlife Brush Shelters” ( suggests using stones, pieces of pipe, larger pieces of wood, etc. to create a base for wildlife piles and covering them with smaller branches.  The larger materials create space the animals need for escape and shelter while the smaller materials provide cover and protection.  If the animals prefer space then burn piles should have as little space as possible.  Begin your burn piles with small branches then stack on larger pieces of wood.  The larger, heavier pieces smash the pile, reducing the free space under the pile.  Animals still loaf around the brush but we’ve seen fewer of them scurrying away once the pile is burning.


We hope this info helps you with your land clearing chores.  Clearing land is hot, sweaty work... but we love every minute of it!