One of the best places to be when it is cold out and there is snow on the ground is near a burn pile. When my Uncle Stuart first talked about getting some of the thinning burnt this winter, I hoped I’d be around to help. And when he drove by this morning and said he’d be starting to work on some of the piles, I got bundled up and headed over to the piles.
My uncle already had five of them lit, but barely, and there was an extra pitch fork in the back of the truck. For the next four hours or so, we monitored the burning, started a few more fires, consolidated the piles, and stirred up what was there to make sure everything would burn. The idea is to get everything burnt the first time around, and not have the fire die out before all the fuel has been consumed. While the fire is hot, the pile is left to itself, but when it gets smaller and the fuel has been significantly reduced, it becomes a duck-in-duck-out game, trying to toss smouldering pieces of wood further into the pile without getting your eyelashes singed off. Even when there are no flames, the heat is sometimes unbearable up close. I could never get as close as my uncle could get.
We lost a few trees in the rain and high winds early this summer, which contributed to the piles, and we saved the 50-foot-tall trunks, to be kept for firewood. Most of what made up the piles was from clearing and land management. Overgrown forests are unhealthy forests, discourage diversity of flora and fauna, are a prime habitat for the pine beetles which wreck havoc on forested land, and are high-risk areas for forest fires. Responsible land management includes clearing out old and unhealthy trees, and thinning areas of too-thick new growth. When people begin to inhabit a region, there is an obligation to care for the land, but this goes beyond aesthetics, and goes far beyond the hands-off approach of some environmentalists. Before people inhabited the Black Hills, wildfires would periodically reset the landscape, eliminating old growth and restarting with new, healthy growth. If you look at comparison pictures from Custer’s expedition to now, it is quite obvious that the forest has spread since then. Now we keep wildfires from taking out entire areas of trees, to the best of our ability, but if we’re going to put out wildfires, then we also need to do the job of the wildfire, and that is to clear out undergrowth and old, unhealthy tree growth.
This management also helps to prevent the massive destruction we’ve seen in the Hills because of the pine beetle. Probably due in large part to my Grandpa’s and my uncle’s careful management of the home place, we haven’t had any issues with the pine beetle, which has decimated other areas of the Black Hills. Pretty soon, though, the beetle will run its course and the forest will begin to replace itself. Either people need to responsibly clear and thin the forest to promote a healthy ecosystem, or God’s Creation will do the job itself! Rather fascinating, actually.
Sunny, my uncle’s faith Labrador, tagged along with us, chasing rabbits and eating cow manure. She makes me miss Baby, my other sister’s dog, who is now back in Illinois.
With the nippy wind blowing and the snow freezing underfoot, the heat from the fires felt wonderful. We monitored seven piles, two of which were good sized, but north of us along the highway, some independent contractors were burning about fifty small slash piles on our place, which were a part of a fuel-reduction program. In that area, which is now more open though still heavy forested, the grass is thick and lush in the summer, and there’s a little hollow where deer are frequently seen. It will be great having the burn piles out of there! They’ve been sitting there for several years now, and just weren’t very attractive.
When I finally came in for lunch, smelling strongly of smoke and the outdoors, it was almost 3:00. The day had flown by. The lingering smell of smoke still hangs in our little valley. It is a comforting smell. It is the smell of warmth in the wintertime.