Before you burn, there are options
Our skies are hazy as residents in unincorporated Nevada County incinerate their property debris. Inhale at your own risk on permissible burn days and watch carefully for escaping burn piles.
The burn pile debate is hot. Yes, some claim a small burn pile on your property, on a windless day, with a hose at ready, reduces wildfire vulnerability. But, often property owners lose control of burn piles. Even those with years of experience can be caught off-guard with an errant gust of wind, and then, yikes! Our diligent, tax supported fire department must step in to prevent a full-fledged wildfire.
While fire safety must be paramount, there is a thoughtful path “in between” that no doubt requires a little more effort than burning, but is far kinder to our lungs and the environment.
For Grass Valley and Nevada City, where no burning is permitted, the issue is easy—request Waste Management’s green waste curbside pick up. Cut and toss in the bin. However, there are low carbon footprint electric leaf shredders and wood chippers that greatly reduce the volume of material to a nice, compostable pile. Hooray, less purchase of mulch and compost and fewer of those awful plastic bags that never decomposes.
For everyone else, if you have a large yard and/or acreage outside the city limits, vegetation removal becomes more daunting. Nonetheless, with determination you can gather organic waste for a second life instead of sending it up in inhalable smoke particles and carbon emissions. Here are some options that require some loppers, a saw, and sometimes some hired help.
JUST LEAVE IT
According to the John Muir Project, studies suggest that a dead pine tree is less flammable than a live tree, as the combustible oil is reduced as the tree decomposes. And snags, or “wildlife trees”, are ecologically important for good forest health.
Mother Earth News reported: “In North America, about 85 species of birds, at least 50 mammal species, and roughly a dozen reptiles and amphibians rely on snags for shelter, food, mating, resting, nesting and other critical functions. In addition, dozens of invertebrates — millipedes, beetles, spiders, worms, ants and more. In all, says the U.S. Forest Service, some 1,200 forms of fauna rely on dead, dying or rotted-hollow trees.”
However, we face a dilemma. In our dry environment, snags are flammable and add to the fuel load. Certainly within 100 feet of your house, any dead wood is a risky deal.
Want to save scarce water? Then consider “hugel mounds,” which are constructed by burying or piling logs directly on the ground, adding branches, plant waste, compost, then add additional soil to make an earthen mound into which you can plant directly if you wish.
HEAT YOUR HOUSE
If you have a woodstove or fireplace insert that meets the California strict standard for emission control, burning your wood in the winter reduces your heating bill. Save sticks from small branches for kindling. Then you can have an eco-friendly burn when you really need the warmth.
If a tree service helps you cut trees and brush, they are happy to pile the chips on your property. Fire Safe has a terrific wood chipping service, so if you stack your brush carefully at an accessible location, the crew will chip and leave a pile or take the chips away.
Fire Safe does suggest keeping mulch 30 feet away from structures. When decomposed, these chips absorb water and are a terrific planting medium to use for less flammable native plants to adorn our yards and support the insects and wildlife that depend on native plants for food and shelter.
HAUL IT AWAY
If you really can’t find a place for the green bounty, Nevada County and Fire Safe offer free seasonal green waste drop off locations.
If you miss these special drop off events, you can haul green waste to the McCourtney Road Transfer Station, and pay a fee. Fortunately, that green waste is trucked to a processor for chips, so it has a second life.
We have many technologies and tools for using green waste. So, before you burn, think about the rewards of green waste, and we will all breathe easier.
Debbie Gibbs, of Nevada City, is a member of the Nevada County Climate Action Now group and the WasteNOT recycling team.