Monday, December 10, 2012

Burn Baby Burn

We finally got some rain here in the Sierra Nevada Foothills in Northern California, y'all.  Actually, we got some a few weeks back, before the Thanksgiving holiday.  Then we just got a whole helluva lot more this last weekend (or two), the first of December.  We got twelve inches here on our humble hillside...over a three day period!  Yowzah!  That's some rain.

My wife and I drove back from visiting our kids and grand kids in Oakland Sunday morning in the thick of one of the fronts.  Can I get another yowzah?  We probably should not have been driving, but my lovely wife, the church lady and finance minister of said church had to be at church that morning.  So we risked life and limb, not so much dealing with wind but sheets of water on the highway, to wash away some sin.  OK, pun intended.

I swear there was a good two hundred foot run where our wheels weren't on the pavement.  Hydroplaning slippage was constant, and so was a (much slower than I usually drive) 55-60 MPH, which dropped to about 25 during a couple hellacious downpours.  Like when you couldn't see the tail lights ahead through a periscope even if you had a submarine.  Or something like that.  Fortunately there were not many folks on the road at six am, so even though it was a slower and dangerous slog we did okay.

I had a father-daughter date that Saturday to see a matinee of  "The Sound of Music" put on by the Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley.  Wonderful 350 seat venue, fantastic show.  My daughter and I share an affection for the Julie Andrews movie version, donning our cowboy (and cowgirl) pajamas around the holidays and singing along.   We're going to try and catch the sing-along community function in the Castro district in SF next holiday season.  Now that she has moved to within a couple hours we have started an annual father-daughter date.  Her mother and her have been doing it for years, now it's my turn too!

So, I was just finishing editing Sauce and my ankle was feeling good and I decided to test run it a few times with a couple of burns.  I had a couple of piles that had "summered" over much to my chagrin, I hate to have extra dry fuel lying around during fire season.

That's about all we really have to worry about around here as far as natural disasters go.   Well, with climate change a small tornado was spotted a couple months back about fifteen miles south of here.  Other than that, we're out of any major fault zone area, no hurricanes or volcanoes (that I know of)  to deal with.  So that leaves wild fire as the main potential threat.  Well, that and farmland zombies.  They migrated out here from Nebraska I understand.  Fortunately our Grandson is an expert zombie hunter and exterminator.  And there's always the potential of locusts.  Really hot summers.  No gin.

One of the most important, as well as my main time consuming and physically demanding chores around here for the last two years has been clearing and burning (on my terms) all the old vegetation laying around.  As well as thinning the trees.  Just where the heck has Paul Bunyan been?

Yes, I am well aware that it would be incredibly better to chip it all and amend the clay soil around here then to send smoke up into the atmosphere.  Well aware of it, and would love to, but there is only me, and I am rapidly approaching sixty!  I can burn in a couple hours what would take me all day to chip.  Just where the heck has Paul Bunyan been?

That's one thing, and then there is the scope and magnitude and scale of what I'm dealing with.  Right now I'm dealing with a combined brush pile about the size of a small house, give or take a barn or two.  If you lived in the country of course.

I also burn real clean.  I mostly burn Slash (dried brush, tree limbs and stuff-not the musician) that has been aged for a few months.  Once the fire's really cooking when newly cut green stuff gets tossed on it doesn't really smoke at all.

I'm also an ex-firefighter (somewhere back there in my impetuous youth) and always have the relevant permit if necessary.  And the freaking LAST thing I ever want to happen is to have to call the fire guys to come out for an uncontrolled control burn, something we were called out on all the time!  OK, breakout the marshmallows, weenies, beer and sub-machine guns, let's make some fire magic and have us a bonfire.

Every firefighter is a latent pyromaniac, so given an opportunity to burn something legally is akin to dancing at a Grateful Dead show on some Orange Sunshine,  sunshine.  Or slathering down pints of Ben and Jerry's ice cream.  If you were an ice cream junkie of course.  Or whatever your fun loving, feel good sumptuous grand time deal is, that's what making fire is like for a firefighter.  Well, that and putting it out.  It's almost as much fun putting it out as it is making it.  Quite the delicious dilemma.

When I stage a burn I usually set the burn pile in the clearest, nearest area where I have accumulated a brush bonanza.  I'll make a nice pile of smaller twigs about 8-10 feet from the main brush pile and then if I'm not burning soon, I'll cover it with some form of rain resistance.  As long as I have at least a shoe box size dry seat I can get recently rained on slash scorching!

I use BBQ fluid to get it going, definitely NOT gasoline.  You lose your eyebrows unless you light a gas moistened pile real quick, like before you strike the match. And then you'll look like Richard Pryor running down the streets of LA for all the wrong reasons.

Once the seat gets cooking I start adding the surrounding brush, generally feeding it with the closest stuff and working out.  Even though I had three piles to burn this day, I will usually only burn two active fires at once, it's about all this old fart can handle!

This day I started the smaller pile above (with the brown tarp) first, then a much larger one about forty feet below it.  Once I was done feeding the smaller brown tarp fire, I started the blue tarp pile on fire.  By the time the third fire was roaring the first fire was pretty much coals.  Then I was just moving laterally between two larger fires for about two hours until there was no more (nearby) fresh dead brush to feed them.  Then it's just a matter of cleaning up the escaped twigs and odds and ends that always evade the flame when working with a large fire.

Lateral flames:


It was nice burning the two lateral fires, there was no tree coverage to be concerned with so I could let them rip vertically.  It's nice to work with two fires because you can feed one to extreme and let it rip while you feed the other.  By the time you've finished the second feeding then the other pile is ready for more.  These two big piles went down in about an hour, and then there's the customary couple hour clean up and burn down to simmering ash.

I usually start my burn around 9:00 AM, which is the recommended time by our air regulatory agency.  I'm usually done by 1:00 PM, many times I'm done feeding the fire by Noon.  And if I'm really really lucky, as I was on this particular day, some rain comes in mid-afternoon and eradicates any small chance that there might be a spark.

I have done two more piles since these photos were taken, with two more large ones remaining on the lower, lower forty.  It's a lot of work, but it sure cleans up real nice.  Tighten logic with malleable spanners.

Chicken Update

I have recently had my first experience with a broody hen.  Why, what is a broody hen you may inquire?  Well, just stay with me because I am about to inform you.

Broodiness is essentially is a hen's instinct to set on a nest and hatch eggs. You can read more here Cures for Broody Hen |,
if you so desire.  Or you could just read more here.  Whatever you prefer.  Sunshine.

There is broody cute, there is broody mean, and there is broody psycho. 

One of our Barred Rocks, or "Ethels" was the broody antagonist.  My lovely wife has affectionately named the hens, but it's just one name per breed.  It was an inspired idea, I'll be damned if I can tell them apart, except for the breed that is.

So the Barred Rocks are both "Ethel", the Black Star's are both "Myrna", the Red Stars are both "Betty" and the Orpington's are all "Baby".  Except Goldie.  He's the Rooster and got his own name.  It's easy this way, and way less time consuming.  And the birds don't care.  They'd never come if you tried to call them anyway.

It's either that or bright neon spray paint, and I think that's probably inhumane.  And time consuming.  And possibly as insane as a broody hen.  Especially when you try to spray the other side of the feathers.  It's kinda like the other side of the looking glass, only if you were the hen and had inhaled vapor from the spray paint.

So anyway, Ethel starts hanging out for an inordinate amount of time in one of the nest boxes.  (There are three boxes, which is more than enough for nine laying hens.)  They're usually only in there to do they're business, which can be from fifteen to fifty minutes.  Depending on if it's express or regular delivery.

Ethel was in there all day and was cooing and cute and not aggressive (as some broody hens can be), so I just pretended she was cooing and cute and the whole situation would evaporate tomorrow.  

The next morning she was in the same box, and still cooing and cute.  That afternoon though she had moved to another box.  I discovered she had apparently been sitting on three eggs, all of which could not have been just hers. She was in the new box for another day, then switched back to the first box.  It is now when things begin to get psycho, it they're not already.

There were two eggs in the second box, so it began to look like she was trying to hatch everybody's eggs, only they were in different places.  And then, eggs started appearing broken on the floor.  Even though it is covered with rice hay, a concrete slab will still apparently crack an egg after a five foot Humpty-Dumpty fall.  
I don't know what was going on in her pee-picking little bird brain, but it sure looked like Psycho to me.  Anthony Perkins.  Janet Leigh.  Bananas in the shower.  I was getting pretty irritated with her and so I started tossing her out of the hen house.  She'd grouse around for fifteen minutes or so, which is odd because she's a chicken, and then she'd head back into the hen house.

The rest of the flock were still sleeping on perches in the outside enclosed cage, the weather and colder nights have not seemed to drive them into the somewhat warmer climate inside the hen house.  But Ethel just hung out in the nesting box area, flinging out eggs and talking nonsense to herself and her pee-picking bird brain. Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, or Joan Crawford in anything.

The rest of the flock would exit the cage in the morning, and then, when allowed, would scamper out through the gate to dine on bugs the front lawn.  But Ethel hung out in the hen house, like Rapunzel in her tower, inordinate little bleeps of psycho thoughts orbiting about her pea size bird brain cranium. 

This psychotic event went on for about a week when I finally decided I better get educated on the situation.  I was only getting 1-3 eggs a day, down from 5-7.  Not only was she sending little yolks to their premature death, I think she was also disrupting the harmony within the club house.

Instead of listening to some mellow jazz or new age hip-hop the wanna be laying hens were subject to a non-stop rolling tape of Yoko Ono squelching out all her rabid hits from the seventies, like this one.

After some rapid research, I learned I essentially needed to remove her from the nesting area to disrupt her disruptive behavior pattern.  Easier said than done for me.  It was going to be extremely difficult for me to remove her without either endangering her at night or cutting off the other hens from their nesting area too.

I landed on what I thought might be a trial or maybe solution.  Since the rest of the flock was still sleeping in the cage outside, I just put a small board across their little door to the hen house.  It usually stays open all the time for their ingress and egress.  Then I closed the main door and forced her to spend the night with the rest of the flock.

The next morning I opened the hen house door so they could all get access to the nesting area, and much to my surprise our antagonist pretty much hung out with the flock the entire day.  (The previous week she was never seen with the flock-she was always inside screeching like Yoko and listening to Sound Garden and Barry Manilow interchangeably while she'd throw eggs on the floor.)

 I cut her off from the house again the next night, but it's now been a couple weeks and she appears to be over her broodiness.  How about that?

I didn't need to do a chicken liver labotomy or chick-o-shock therapy.  She went from acting like any sit-com mom from the fifties to one of them postpartum psychotic depression murderesses like Andrea Yates, after she drank gin and snorted some PCP.  Probably.  Or maybe like Margot Kidder on acid  looking for gnomes in strangers backyards.  Which I suppose is better than looking for Nome, Alaska, especially in a backyard in Los Angeles.

The poor flock was also confined to their club house and cage for the twelve inches of rain three day weekend.  It gets tough on them in there, they can only read so many books.  So I got them the game Angry Birds, and they seem to enjoy that, along with Twister and Chicken Cha Cha Cha.  It helps wile away the rain soaked hours, but for them there's nothing like frolicking on the lawn and eating bugs.  Well, that and crowing, if you're a Rooster.   And now, a picture from our sponsor for all you suburban chicken followers: