Amy-Lynn Albertson: Fire can be a tool, but always be cautious

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 8, 2016

Finally, it’s gotten cold and feels like winter. So let’s talk about fire. Everybody enjoys a good bonfire, campfire or just a nice fire in the fireplace. I’ve been stacking firewood for the last few days so fire has been on my mind.

Ashes from your wood stove or fireplace can be a great source of lime and potash in your garden. Give the ash plenty of time to completely cool before you clean your stove or fireplace. Allow the ash to sit in the ash bucket for a few days before spreading it in your garden.

Protect yourself when applying wood ash. Wear eye protection, gloves and, depending on the fineness of the ash, you may want to wear a dust mask. Do not use ash from burning trash, cardboard, coal or pressure-treated painted or stained wood. These could contain trace elements, harmful to plants when applied in excessive amounts. Once fire season is over and the garden season is about to begin, incorporate the ash into the garden soil before planting.

I saw several posts about burning Christmas trees after the New Year on social media. If you plan to burn a brush pile, it’s always a good idea to get a burning permit. Burning permits are free and available at several sites across the county as well as online at If you live in the city/town limits, call your local fire department to check on burning laws.

When burning a brush pile, make sure you have access to water and a proper line around the pile to prevent any sparks from jumping out. Check the weather. Don’t burn on dry, windy days and consider alternatives to burning.

Some types of debris – such as leaves, grass and stubble – may be of more value if used for compost. Another option for that Christmas tree is to sink it in a pond and create a great habitat for fish. It is always illegal to burn household trash or any other non-vegetative matter.

Winter is the perfect time for prescription burning or hazard reduction burning for the forest. The NC Forest Service in Rowan County burned more than 800 acres for hazard reduction. Fire is a natural part of forest and grassland ecology and is a very useful tool.

Fire is used in a pine plantation to control competing species, like maple or sweet gum that are competing for sun, water and nutrients. Fire also improves conditions for wildlife by increasing quantity and quality of food and habitat. It also provides insurance that your timber stand will not be lost in a wildfire as the fuel load will be reduced.

With prescription burning, the intensity of the fire can be controlled by burning when weather and fuel moisture are just right to keep the flame length where it’s needed. In addition to prescribed burning, the Forest Service helps landowners with forest management plans, reforestation and wildfire control.

North Carolina has approximately 14 million acres of forest that is owned or controlled by private woodland owners. If you own some woodland and would like assistance with management of that land, contact the NC Forest Service in Rowan County at 704-216-8993.

For more information about forestry or other horticultural topics, please contact the Rowan County Extension Center at 704-216-8970 or Amy-Lynn Albertson is director of the Rowan County center.