Crews to burn piles on frozen lake

Pactola reservoir, during warmer times.
Pactola reservoir, during warmer times.

UPDATED @ 1:35 MT, Feb. 22, 2010

I talked with the dam keeper at the lake. He said he has never seen piles burned on a lake before. It was done at Pactola about 15 years ago, he said, but no one currently in the area with the Bureau of Reclamation was around then to see it. According to the dam tender, crews from the Rapid City Water Department will actually do the burning. The piles have already been constructed and are near the dam.

The burning is expected to take place on Tuesday, Feb. 23, beginning sometime between 8 and 10 a.m.

UPDATED @ 2:28 p.m. MT, Feb. 22, 2010

The Bureau of Reclamation has postponed the pile burning that was going to occur tomorrow. It turns out that they still have some details to work out, and they want to get the Rapid City Fire Department and/or the U. S. Forest Service involved in the project.

UPDATE @ 12:20 p.m. MT, Feb. 23, 2010

The latest plan is for them to begin burning the piles between 8 and 10 a.m. tomorrow, Feb. 24. There are only six piles and they will be ignited with  a propane torch or “brush burner”, rather than gas and diesel, as Ray suggested in the comments. I am thinking that they will use an attachment something like this one, which is sold by Harbor Freight for $25 and burns at 3,000° F.

Propane Torch

UPDATE Feb. 24, 2010

They burned the piles today.

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The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages a lot of dams and lakes around the country, plans to burn driftwood that they will pile onto the frozen Pactola Reservoir this week. Pactola is 15 miles west of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Has anyone ever done this, or heard of burning piles on a frozen lake? My first impressions:

  • The piles would be difficult to light, unless you carefully placed a lot of small branches, twigs, or dry leaves at the bottom. Or, used a great deal of an accelerant to get it going.
  • It is typical to ignite burn piles using a drip torch, using a mix of gasoline and diesel as the fuel. Depending on the content of the pile, it can take a fair amount of the fuel to get a pile going. Some of that burning fuel from the drip torch would fall to the ice and most likely be extinguished. Then when the ice melts you introduce these petroleum products into the lake.
  • When the pile is burning, the heat from the fire will melt the ice, then it becomes a question of which will occur: the ice melts and the burning pile falls into the lake, or the ice is so thick that a significant portion of the burn pile is consumed by the fire before the ice melts completely. So how thick must the ice be to burn a significant portion of a pile?
  • Even if the ice does not completely melt all the way down to the water, the bottom of the pile will be sitting in water soon after the pile is lit, so the wood at the bottom will not completely burn. And as the pile burns and settles, the burning wood will fall into the water on top of the ice.
  • Burn piles with medium to large logs, like driftwood, need to burn for hours for the larger logs to be consumed. I can’t imagine this happening on top of ice.
  • Even if the pile completely burns, which is unlikely, you will be left with a bunch of ash on the ice. Is this what you want in a reservoir that is used as a source for drinking water? On the other hand, if a fire burns near a reservoir, ash can sometimes be washed by rainfall into the lake.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

4 thoughts on “Crews to burn piles on frozen lake”

  1. First off, I’m not sure why they are insisting on burning driftwood…why don’t they make it a firewood sale or give it away? Doesn’t really seem like it’s meeting any fuels objectives.

    As for the pollution from torches, I’m sure this is negligible compared to dirty two-cycle outboards (always seems to be an oil slick around boats) and run-off pollutants.

    I doubt a pile will completely melt through the ice, if it does, I’m not sure I’d want to be out walking around. But I’m sure the ice and water will make them difficult to light and keep going, though I’ve heard of people having bonfires one frozen lakes before…

  2. Us a propane weed burner. That will allow for continuous heat to be applied to the piles without the hazardous materials concerns. The worst that would happen is the ice would melt, they would fall in and the propane bottle would be bobbing there like a bouy.

  3. It sounds to me like the author of this article has never had a fire on a frozen lake before. Heat rises, therefore only minimal residual heat is transferred to the ice to induce melting. As for the fuel, it is combusted by the fire itself, and will have a minimal impact such as a two stroke motor or less. The comment about selling the driftwood?? Come on, the wood is on the lake shore…being in the black hills, there is plenty of accessible wood for cutting and splitting that is much more suitable for fireplaces. It is not feasible to drag driftwood to a place accessible to even think about giving it away (because no one in their right mind would pay for junk wood). Long story short: Bill, you need to come up to the north country and have a lake fire and observe it’s behavior before throwing out wild ideas of what the fire/ice will or won’t do.

  4. Todd-

    You are absolutely right, that I have never built a fire on a frozen lake, that’s why I asked if anyone had ever done it or heard of it.

    I have nothing against it, but am just curious about how it works. And I am willing to be educated.

    Have you ever burned piles of logs on a frozen lake? If so, how long do they burn after you stop feeding them? Will they burn and then smolder for 6-12 hours, nearly consuming the entire pile? How did you ignite them? Was there also some lighter fuel mixed in, such as 10- and 100-hour time lag fuels?

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