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I have an empty lot with a tree line that is going to be too close to the home I intend to build on it. I hired a landscape contractor to clear the woods back about 40ft on the property but to avoid the added price of renting a chipper and a bobcat he suggested that he could just leave it in piles for me to burn.

Luckily there are only a few trees over 6 inches in diameter at the trunk, most of it is brush, saplings and smaller trees, however 4,000sq ft of cleared woods is still going to make for some rather big piles to burn!

I already called my local fire department to ask for permission and they said I don't need a burning permit, just to call them when I know a date for when I will burn so they can mark it on their books that there is a controlled burn at that location.

They didn't really tell me what defines a "controlled burn" however, and I certainly don't want to pay the landscaper $60/hr to tend an enormous fire.

My question is, how can I safely burn these brush and sapling piles assuming that I do not have a water source to tap for a hose if it gets out of control? Is there a safe way to do this to ensure that the grass surrounding the fire won't catch?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

A couple more things from me:

  1. Choose a calm day without heavy winds to start the fire. If you have a lot of winds, there is quite a lot of risk that the fire will spread.
  2. Clear the area surrounding your fire piles - the best way is to use hoe and remove the dry weeds/grass and dig a bit the earth.
  3. Prepare spades to use them to shut down any small fires that can emerge around your piles. Maybe having a fire extinguisher is not a bad idea either.
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This seems like the best course of action. I am going to dig in a small pit and line it with rocks. I will then dig out the grass around the rocks a couple feet and make sure it is a calm day. If I do this early in the morning then there should be enough morning dew on everything to make the grass hard to catch but not enough to make the fire difficult. A fire extinguisher is a great idea for worse case scenario. –  maple_shaft Jun 6 '12 at 10:52
    
Sounds like a good plan to me! Good luck and update us after finishing with the fires. –  nettle Jun 6 '12 at 13:10
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Keep in mind that a bonfire can throw off hot material a fair distance. If the weather has been dry for several days and there's tinder on the ground, a large fire could ignite something tens of yards away from you. Also, once you get a bonfire going, it will be very difficult to quickly extinguish -- e.g. if you wanted to in case the weather unexpectedly becomes breezy. –  bstpierre Jun 6 '12 at 14:27
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In places I've lived the fire department said we can only burn (a) if it is raining or (b) if there is snow on the ground. Either strategy makes it easier to control the fire, though getting it started when it's pouring rain can be moderately challenging.

Note that if all of this was just recently cut, you'll have a hard time getting much of it to burn until you get a fire going pretty hot, and even then green wood will make a lot of smoke. If you can wait until you have snow on the ground, then the wood will be dried out, easier to burn, and the fire will be easier to control. (Your profile says Pittsburgh, I assume you will have a bit of snow on the ground next winter.)

For an alternative to burning, see hugelkultur; at your scale this will likely require the Bobcat to distribute brush into piles and bury it.

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I have to do this before July so unless God truly loves me I cannot depend on snow. Maybe I can wait after the brush dries out a bit then after or during a nice rainy day. If I put some kerosene then I hope I can get it hot enough to sustain itself in the rain or is this just wishful thinking? –  maple_shaft Jun 5 '12 at 19:01
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I wouldn't use kerosene to get it started. I'd probably try to keep some of the wood covered / dry enough to get it started, bring enough dry fuel to get it started (newspapers/cardboard/straw?). Another thought -- it might be worth a try putting a "free brush, you haul, I'll help you load" ad on craigslist/freecycle. Who knows... –  bstpierre Jun 6 '12 at 4:06
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