Jerry Nelson: Fire makes for an ancient source of fun

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
Jerry Nelson

Fire can be a force for either good or bad. For instance, the words “all fired up!” usually connotes positive feelings whereas the phrase “you’re fired!” can mean that you have been involuntarily deselected from the workforce.

Fire can destroy or renew. A little of both took place at our farm recently.

A year ago last May an unpredicted and unpredictable derecho struck our region. Our farmstead, like many others, lost dozens of trees. The number of trees in our shelterbelt that were busted off or uprooted could officially be classified as “more than you can shake a stick at.”

Like many homeowners in our region, I quickly formed a close personal relationship with my chainsaw. We are eternally grateful for all the help we received from neighbors and friends who pitched in with the cleanup. The downed trees were pitched into a brush pile that grew to approximately the same size and tonnage as a house.

Last week I decided that it was time to burn the brush pile. It seemed fitting that it was almost a year to the day after the derecho.

One cannot simply conduct a major burn on a whim nowadays. One must alert the authorities so that they can be prepared in case things get out of hand. Another factor is that people who live hereabouts become nervous whenever they see a large plume of smoke rising into the sky. Such a thing is likely to be reported to the authorities, causing enormous amounts of undue consternation and perhaps a visit from your local fire department.

I watched the weather forecast closely and chose a day that promised light winds. Early on the morning of the burn I strolled down to the brush pile accompanied by our faithful farm dog, Bella.

“Don’t play with fire!” is an admonishment that’s often issued to little boys. This only serves to make fire seem all the more fascinating to the boy. Our family incinerated our household refuse when I was a kid and I frequently volunteered to tend the burn barrel. I thus acquired a deep respect for the way fire can behave. Liquid accelerants cost me more than one set of eyebrows.

A few well-placed wadded-up newspapers were all that was needed to ignite the brush pile. Within seconds the fire had leaped from twig to branch, roaring greedily as it gobbled the desiccated wood.

A brush pile burns on the Nelson farm.

The heat quickly became surprisingly intense. Even at 50 feet away, Bella and I were beginning to feel quite toasty. We probably could have roasted weenies right where we stood.

Bella sat at my feet and peered up at me with an anxious expression that seemed to say, “Dad? Don’t you see what’s happening? Are you sure that everything is OK?”

I assured her that things were going exactly as planned. “But maybe we should back up a few yards,” I told her. “If we stand this close much longer, we’ll both soon be hot dogs.”

It was one of those rare mornings here on the prairie when the wind was virtually nonexistent. This happens about as often as a visit from Halley’s Comet.

Some of the trees in the brush pile were absolutely huge. One of them had a trunk that appeared to be the same diameter as a rear tractor tire. There could be no doubt that this tree was more than 100 years old. This meant there could also be no doubt that it had been planted by my great-grandfather Charlie Sveen, who homesteaded our farm.

Glancing at the garden hose at my feet, I thought about how Charlie had probably carried buckets of water to that tree to nurse it through long, hot summers. The tree had returned the favor by providing shelter from our relentless winds for multiple generations of my family.

And now it was going back to the atmosphere from whence it came via the rapacious flames of an ignoble brush pile fire.

Like a passionate new romance, a brush pile fire throws off tremendous amounts of heat and drama at the start. And like a romance, things eventually settle down to a slow smolder. That is when the real work begins.

I used a long-handled shovel to push wayward deadwood onto the glowing heap of coals as a fickle breeze pushed the lazy smoke in random directions. By the end of the day, I had absorbed more smoke than a side of bacon.

“Phew!” exclaimed my wife when I walked into the house, “You smell like you’re on fire!”

It’s gratifying to know that the spark is still there after more than 40 years.

If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.