FORT RUCKER, Ala. (April 3, 2019) - My house is located in the middle of 25 acres I own. Giant oak and hickory trees are scattered across my yard. The canopy provided by these trees has many benefits to include shade on hot Missouri summer days. On the downside, the trees make it difficult to maintain a grass-covered yard. This is especially true if the leaves are not removed by the time spring begins to warm up the ground and start the growing season.
In March 2018, as I do every year, I used the lawn mower to blow three mower widths of firebreak between my yard and the forest edge. I then mowed in a direction to pile up all the leaves in windrows to make it easier to burn and dispose of the debris. I made the windrows about one and 1 1/2 feet high by 5 feet wide.
The wind was calm and the forecast called for light and variable for the entire day. I felt the wind conditions, combined with the previous day's precipitation, made for a great opportunity to get rid of my leaf problem. I typically burned the leaf windrows in sections based on where I had a garden hose located and could keep the fire in view at all times. Unfortunately, the leaves were still damp from the rain and would not ignite, so I decided to allow a couple of hours of sunlight to hit them in hopes they'd dry out enough burn.
At 10 a.m., I figured it was time to light the first windrow. It took a while for the leaves to ignite, but once they did we were off and running. The fire burned almost as planned for the first three windrows. I did notice it was taking a little longer than normal, though, so I lit multiple windrows at a time. This continued for the rest of the afternoon without any problems.
Eventually, smoldering smoke was all that was left from the few piles that had more moisture than the rest. It was now time to start cleaning up the residue and burning off what little debris was left. For the next couple of hours, I hauled the debris out of the yard and to a brush pile I started in a parking lot for one of my pole barns. I raked what few smoldering piles were left into one pile in the center of the driveway and then stopped for supper.
As I ate, I continually checked the smoldering leaves and eventually all of the smoke stopped. I'd soon have to leave to pick up my son for baseball practice, but I felt the fire hazard was minimal under the current conditions. I was wrong!
While on my way to baseball practice, I noticed the grass in the fields was moving more than usual. It had been calm when I left the house, so I assumed it was just a light wind passing. When I exited my truck at the ball field, however, I could feel a 10- to 15-knot wind was starting to blow. I quickly corralled my son and hurried home to ensure everything was still under control.
About two miles from my house I noticed the smoke. A sense of urgency took hold and I knew my complacency had gotten the best of me. When we arrived at our property, it was obvious all of the forest leaves around our house were on fire. I was fortunate that my property is surrounded on two sides by a large river and gravel roads with open corn fields on the others. The resulting fire pretty much burned all of our 25 acres. Luckily, the previous day's precipitation had kept everything pretty moist and only the leaves and small undergrowth were burned. That night, we got an additional two inches of rain, which ensured there were no more flare ups.
Complacency could have easily cost me my house or some of my barns. I had been burning that way for so many years and gotten used to nothing going wrong. Therefore, I never thought to implement controls. More personnel and better fire prevention methods could have prevented all of this from happening. It was a mistake I won't let happen again.
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