Burn Pile

Burn Pile

We put a lot of effort into revamping the ranch last year. Two new cabins, an extra floor on the main house, and a whole new power and water system. All in all it took eight carpenters and builders nearly five months. Then there was a man with a digger, electricians and plumbers, a pot-bellied propane installer and his oddball son, and a professional house-mover who showed up with a 1950s breakdown truck and a wheelbarrow’s worth of shortening.

He moved our 40-tonne workshop 30 yards with nothing more than some long bits of wood, a few jacks and a load of vegetarian lard, and then trailered one of our cabins 60 yards across the garden. But even with all these hard-bitten problem-solvers in one place for an entire summer, one box that stubbornly refused to be ticked was the burning of our burn pile, a small mountain of offcuts and old wood. “We’ll have to do it before the guests come,” Kristin and I agreed in June.

But before we had even noticed a regional bonfire ban was imposed, and then, as the summer grew hotter and hotter, campfires were proscribed too. “Well, we’ll do it in September.”

Meanwhile the burn pile, which seemed to have grown from infant to adult in the blink of an eye, was now dramatically widening its girth. By the time the autumn came the monster had morphed from a large but able-bodied XL to a sedentary and sullen XXXL.

Igniting it would not only have risked the lives of several trees but asphyxiated half the locals. Definitely a job for the end of the season, then. But when the last week of October finally came around we were exhausted and there were so many other tasks that needed doing before winter set in. Dethroning Ignis Maximus slowly slid down our list of priorities.

“Never mind,” Kristin soothed. “The best time to tackle it is late winter. With the snow still on the ground there will be little chance of it spreading.” I happily went along with the suggestion.

In the meantime, however, Maxi was turning to Mega. As well as huge quantities of old wood we had ripped out during the building, there were now endless rotten paddock poles and mountains of random detritus adding to its bulk.

The beast was so bloated that within its confines, for anyone brave enough to try, there were probably the ingredients for several modest buildings. This was brought home to us when a local lady built a fairly high-end chicken coop from gatherings scavenged from the pile. But even if we were now taking away as well as adding, the ogre appeared undiminished. “Early April and you’re a goner,” I muttered to myself when I thought of the burn pile over the winter.

For the first time that we can remember, however, when we returned to the ranch in April, the snow had all gone. The same time last year we had had three feet of it evenly spread across the yard. This year: nothing. Climate change, it seemed, had conspired to put the inferno off once again.

But the prospect of another year in close proximity to the sleeping dragon was just too much to bare. As well as its unlovely aesthetics the entire edifice was so large it looked like it might just self-combust and take our house and outbuildings away in the mother of all conflagrations.

By now it had become personal. A matter of honour. I didn’t want to be known in the neighbourhood as the man who had been bested by his own burn pile. I could already imagine the sniggering and muffled guffaws. And so, one morning three or four weeks ago with Ott, a visiting friend from Estonia, and Spring, a carpenter-come sculptor who helps me out with building and mechanical problems, we resolved to do the colossus in.

Kristin, more cautious and sensible than I am, was in town buying provisions for the season ahead. It was a good time to make my move. “You are foolish, Julius,” Ott told me, a look of foreboding furrowing his Finno-Ugric brow. But Spring, ever an optimist, was relaxed about the operation and I was resolved.

We hooked up two hose-pipes to hydrants and unearthed our muscular water pump, a machine that spits out more water than a small river. We pinned up tarpaulins to protect our rubber boats from flying sparks. We checked the weather – there was light rain and the wind was calm. Then, at my urging, Spring gingerly lit one small corner.

For the first half an hour, the burn was disappointingly anti-climactic. The flames spread only slowly and our precautions seemed, if anything, a little excessive. “This isn’t going to be a problem,” I said, turning to Spring. He shrugged, blasé and confident.

Only Ott still looked concerned. Denizen of a small Baltic republic perched precariously between Germany and Russia, history had taught his people that if something could go wrong it probably would. And for a while it seemed he might be right. The rain stopped, the wind picked up and the fire took off. First it began to crackle. Then deep in its depths a fiendish heat began to build. And as the behemoth sucked in oxygen, it began to roar like a airplane engine, thrust set for take-off.

For the next hour we hung in there like an amateur toboggan team pitched down an Olympic course. Ott sprayed the tarp covering the boats relentlessly in a vain attempt to stop it heating up. I blasted my hosepipe up and down the sides of the closest building, Kristin’s gardening shed, home to some of her most precious implements. It smoked and steamed ominously. Spring kept a huge stream of water directed at the heart of the flames in an attempt to tamp down its vigour. “It will burn for days,” Ott pronounced with the morose solemnity of a Norse God.

Two nervous hours later the battle was won. The flames still burned and a huge pile of glowing wood continued to radiate brilliant orange. But the outcome, that had hung precariously in the balance, was settled. By the next morning there was nothing left but a huge pile of ash infused with thousands and thousands of nails and screws.

For days I raked and shovelled the ash into a trailer and carted it off to a forgotten corner of the property. Friends who came by – clearly feeling sorry for me – chipped into to help. Then, using a magnet mounted on wheels I collected endless scoops of metal, and carted that off too. The entire operation, I am pleased to say, was a success. The menace is gone. The dragon slain. The garden at Wild Bear Lodge (then Grizzly Bear Ranch) is a safer, less threatening but, I have to admit, marginally less interesting place.