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Should We Burn Yard Waste? Brush Burning Safety & Alternatives


burning yard waste and brush

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There was a time when burning yard waste such as brush and grass clippings seemed the most efficient means for getting rid of debris. These days, however, we are coming to realize that there are immediate and potential long-term implications for this practice.

Should we burn yard waste? Burning yard waste including limbs, leaves, brush, and grass clippings should be a last resort for disposing of organic material. Backyard brush burning results in significant negative environmental consequences and potential fines if fires get out of hand.

Let’s explore these implications and alternatives to burning yard waste.

Arguments Against Burning Yard Waste

Environmental Impact Of Burning Brush

Toxins are released into the environment when we burn brush.

We often overlook the influence that we have on the environment. When it comes to burning yard waste, however, the impact is significant and should be considered by all.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, backyard burning practices are responsible for producing multiple toxins into the air that we breathe.

Nitrogen oxides, for example, play a key role in acid rain and smog. And of course, carbon monoxide, a greenhouse gas. There are other pollutants released as well, all negatively impacting our environment (source).

Brush Fires Can Get Out Of Hand Quickly

A small fire can grow fast when it has oxygen and a fuel source. A pile of dried brush or leaves can turn into a bonfire within a matter of minutes.

Not only do you risk grass or nearby shrubs and trees catching on fire, but you also have to consider the burning particles that rise into the air. They can settle on dry debris in a neighbor’s yard or in a nearby forest.

This can have disastrous results like this example where a man who was burning in his backyard caused a major evacuation of thousands of residents as a fire destroyed thousands of acres.

In 2018, the National Fire Protection Association published a report showing that a significant majority of fires in forests and communities between 2011 and 2015 were the result of human activity including the burning of yard waste (source).

You Can Be Held Financially Responsible For Damages Caused From Burning Yard Waste

Burning yard waste can result in significant damage to neighboring homes and forests.

Imagine being billed $3 million by the U.S. Forestry service for damages and costs resulting from a brush burning gone wild. It happened to one man after his brush pile fire got out of control and caused major fire damage (source).

And this is by no means an isolated case. There have been multiple occurrences where accidental fires have resulted in millions of dollars in fines and even prison time (source).

Best Practice Guidelines On Burning Backyard Waste

If you are still intent on burning brush and other materials, keep the following guidelines in mind.

If You Burn, Avoid Any Non-Organic Materials

avoid burning non-organic material like plastics.

Burning of “trash” including plastics releases dangerous levels of dioxin into the air (source). If you are going to burn, stick with organic materials like limbs, leaves, and brush.

Remember Smokey The Bear? He’s getting old but he still has some excellent pointers on backyard debris burning including:

  • Avoid burning on windy days
  • Don’t burn under tree limbs or other overhangs
  • Start with a small pile and add debris as it burns down
  • Stay with the fire until you are certain that it is completely out

Know Your County’s Rules For Burning

Burning regulations differ by geographic area. Each county has certain rules that need to be followed when burning backyard waste.

Take the time to research this for your county as some areas require notification of the local fire department before burning, especially in dry or windy conditions.

Understand The Concept Of A Controlled Burn

Controlled Burning

While the term “controlled burn” is usually reserved for large-scale forest management, the principles are useful when burning yard debris.

  • Remove or reduce surrounding vegetation
  • Remove nearby surface fuels such as leaves and dead or dry grass

There are many other useful principles outlined in this report that you can use when planning to burn debris in your yard.

One more important point is identifying or creating fire breaks. This can be roads, a trench, anything that impedes a fire’s ability to spread beyond the intended area (source).

Burning Yard Waste In A Barrel

Confining a fire in an enclosed space such as a barrel or even a hole can reduce its ability to spread. It will not guarantee that a fire won’t get out of control but would certainly fall in line with best practices.

Behrens manufacturing makes this compost trash bin that is actually promoted as a fire bin as well. In fact, it is the first result on Amazon when searching for “Fire Bin” as of this writing.

Behrens markets it as a composting bin and rubbish burner. The obvious benefit that this has, aside from being made of non-flammable material, is the holes throughout it. This allows for access to oxygen which is a necessity for fire.

Other options include a steel drum like this 55 gallon one on Amazon. Not cheap by any means but certainly less expensive than the potential fines for a fire that burns out of control.

The bottom line is this. If you are going to burn, take the necessary precautions to prevent damage to property and forests.

Below is a video on principles of safely burning a brush pile from the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s office.

Tips for Safely Burning a Brush Pile

Alternatives To Burning Yard Waste

If all of this has you throwing up your arms in despair, rest easy. There are plenty of alternatives to burning yard waste and chances are, at least one of these will work for you.

Composting

We often take it for granted but all those leaves and brush are excellent for creating compost. There are a lot of ways to approach composting and it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Below are just a few examples of how you can start putting yard waste to good use instead of burning it.

Bin Composting of Yard Debris

All you need is an inexpensive trash can and a drill to get started with this approach.

Drill holes all over the trash can so that air can get in to help the debris to decompose. Fill the can with the two essential ingredients of carbon and nitrogen.

Carbon and nitrogen are needed for organic material to decompose and turn to compost.
A mixture of greens and browns ensures nitrogen and carbon are available to speed up composting.

Don’t make it complicated, just think “greens” and “browns”. Fresh, green vegetation will provide nitrogen and dead, brown leaves and twigs give you the carbon source.

Start with a layer of browns, then greens, then browns again. keep the layers moist and turn every few days or weekly to keep it heating up and decomposing.

The pile will shrink as it decomposes and soon you will have an amazing nutrient-rich soil additive for your yard or garden.

Note: If you don’t want to deal with drilling holes, remember that the burn bin we talked about earlier is also a compost bin.

In-Ground Composting

If you don’t want to deal with turning the debris, another option for putting yard waste to use is in-ground composting.

You can make this as complicated as you want but I’ve found that the simplest approach is to dig a hole, fill it with organic material, and cover it up. You should still mix the greens and browns to help with decomposition but really, you aren’t going to be digging it back up to use it so this is not as important with this approach.

Granted, this strategy only works if you have a garden, undeveloped land, or places in your yard that you don’t mind digging holes in. Still, in the right circumstances, this is a great option.

You can do this on a larger scale with trench composting. The principle is the same but instead of individual holes you trench larger areas and fill them at one time.

This also provides an excellent way to make use of leftover kitchen scraps like vegetables. They can be added in to increase the nitrogen source.

Above Ground Composting

If all of this sounds a little too complicated, here’s a drop-dead simple approach. Just leave the brush pile and let it decompose naturally in place.

How To Decompose A Brush Pile: Build the brush pile in a corner of the yard or somewhere out of the way. Add fresh grass clippings or other greens from time to time and let nature do its thing.

Occasional turning and mixing will speed up the process but even if you just let it sit and forget about it, it will decay and shrink over time.

Large limbs aren’t going to disappear overnight but you may be surprised to see how quickly and efficiently that pile of leaves and grass can decompose.

Dumpster Rental

If you are planning a large debris clearing project, it may be worth considering a dumpster rental. Not all dumpster rental services allow for yard debris but a quick call will give you the answer to that and the cost.

This approach is only useful from a cost-benefit standpoint if you are clearing a large tract of land. Still, it is an option and if it fits your situation, make the call and find out if service is available in your area.

Curbside Pickup

If your county offers debris removal services, you may be able to save yourself a lot of hassle by just having it picked up and hauled off.

If you are unsure who to contract to find out if this service is available in your area, your local county agent can likely point you in the right direction.

Conclusion

Burning yard waste is, well, wasteful. Add to that the environmental implications, the potential for accidental damage of property or forestry, and the fines that could be thrust upon you as a result of that decision, you have compelling reasons to rethink your brush removal strategy.

Whatever route choose, I hope that you found this information helpful.

Paul Brown

Paul has a two-acre yard on red clay soil in Southeast Texas. He knows exactly what the challenges are to nurturing a thriving yard in difficult soil. He takes a practical approach to yard improvement and enjoys putting best practices and “golden rules of lawn care” to the test. Click here for Paul’s author page

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