The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
Soon after we purchased property on Orcas, our next-door neighbor made sure we understood the risk of wildfire and why he keeps the forested property around his house free of underbrush and branches. He explained that wildfire often travels in two forms: low and high. The low version, at ground level, is more manageable. The high version represents the real risk. If fire is able to jump from the ground up into the canopy of big evergreens, it can spread quickly and cause serious damage.
One way to prevent that destructive jump is to keep the forest floor relatively cleared of “kindling” and remove branches that fire can use as a ladder to the canopy. It was a good lesson to learn early, as wildfire is one of the real dangers on the island, especially in summer. In fact, a few days ago someone’s legal burn pile got out of hand and burned an acre of forest preserve on the island.
The forested area by our house was a mess when we arrived on Orcas. No one had cleared the forest of debris in many years and it was almost impenetrable. Weeds 12 feet high, fallen trees, and heavy branches filled the space. In 2018, we chose a weekend and went to work with loppers and a battery-powered chainsaw to whip it into shape. Over a couple of days we had a monster pile of wood and brush that needed to be managed.
My first thought was to rent a chipper that would turn the wood into ground cover. Our neighbor chuckled when I mentioned this plan to him. “Everyone goes through that phase once. Then, they just burn it because chipping is expensive and a pain.” It’s true. Burning wood piles is common here.
In fact, the county issues burn permits for $20 a year that give you permission to burn wood in a safe burn pile on your property, as long as you obey a few common sense rules like being present, awake, and not burning on a windy day. The permits are only valid from October to May 31st, which is our rainy season.
That first burn in 2018 was a formative experience. I was worried that we’d start a forest fire and forever be known as those people in the neighborhood. We lit the pile and slowly added more and more fuel until it was taller than us. We watched as ashes ascended to the tree branches above the fire. We sprayed the trees with water from a hose for good measure.
It ended up working well, but was an unexpected amount of work. It turns out that big fires are extremely hot and working near them feels like a death defying experience for the novice. Of course, my need to make it a BIG fire didn’t help. It burned for nine hours and soon became a pile of biochar that we spread in the forest. Circle of wood, I suppose.
Since that first burn, the little forest by our house had collected its share of debris again and we realized that this spring’s burn deadline was approaching on May 31st. It was time for another burn, so we purchased a permit and watched the weather. A day of rain was coming, followed by a day of calm winds. Perfect. We got to work scouring the wild side of our property for sticks and branches and piled them up by the driveway.
I thought again about what else we could do with the debris. We could leave it in the forest, which is not good for wildfire safety. Or, we could chip it, which costs more and involves renting and transporting heavy equipment that burns fuel. That left us with the option of burning it for the cost of a $20 permit. Perhaps this is why burning is encouraged by the county. They want people to clear their properties and burning provides a legal, economical, and natural method that anyone can do safely as long as they follow the rules.
With the click of a lighter button, our second burn pile went up in flames. After learning from the first burn, I approached this one with more confidence. My hope was to spend a relaxing afternoon tending a big productive fire, maybe with a beer in my hand. That was more of a dream. The reality kicked my ass. The fire got hot quickly and I soon became drenched in sweat and felt my cheeks become chapped by exposure. There was no time for relaxing because the wood always needed to be broken into manageable pieces and the inferno always needed tending.
As the fire became bigger I used a shovel to keep it in check and for a moment, felt like a firefighter. The heat from the fire sucked the moisture directly from my skin and made me thirsty. I wanted cold, fresh water far more than a beer. I thought about the people who fight actual fires and how it must feel to work in that environment for days and weeks. I can’t imagine the toll it would take on the body. Firefighters deserve our support and respect.
Within a couple of hours, the fire was over and a smoldering pile of char was all that remained. Sachi used a hose to douse the flames as I took photos and videos. The rocks under the fire and remnants of wood created a steamy hellscape for a few moments at a time.
Soon enough, the burn pile was cool and wet enough to be left alone and we went inside, triumphant. We didn’t burn down the house, or any neighboring houses, but did burn a lot of calories and now, the forest was ready for wildfire season.
In moving to Orcas, I didn’t anticipate the degree to which wood and trees would be a part of our lives. I knew we’d have firewood and construction lumber, but didn’t realize dealing with wood would be a day-to-day concern. In the summer it burns and in the winter it falls and in between it’s always there; constantly moving, growing, shedding, and dying.
We’ve started to assemble tools of the trade, but haven’t yet invested like our neighbors. They have big gas-powered chainsaws and helmets with shields along with wood splitters for processing their own firewood. This reflects the reality that trees fall every winter and block driveways and roads. They fall on power lines and homes. This should not be surprising, as Orcas is an incredibly wooded place. Our friend RJ is the County Fire Marshal and he told me once that Orcas forests would be healthier with about one-third fewer trees.
In building the house we did our share of tree removal and at the time, I didn’t like the idea of killing big trees. But now I can see that their beauty comes with risk. Today I’m thankful to have defensible space around our home that serves as a safety perimeter.
Many of these are so big that they’ve lived through forest fires and still have the scars. In fact, there is a cedar on our property with visible char from a long-ago fire.
The best we can do is hope for summer rain and keep our little corner of the island cleared and ready so there’s little fuel for a truly big fire to burn.