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Clearing Trees from home building site; options for disposal?

Longstory | Posted in General Questions on

I am a new member and preparing to build on a 14 acre lot in middle TN that is forested. Road access to the building site required lot of tree removal. Due to market conditions only about 20 hardwood trees were of a size and grade to take to a mill (which was luckily only 3 miles from the site). Despite that the only species that brought any return was white oak, which is needed for whiskey barrels. The rest were highly discounted and the sale was only around 1,000 dollars. The other smaller trees and slash were left in a large pile out of the way that is pretty darn large.

Now I am at  the house site clearing stage and more trees need to be removed. Logger says not enough large trees to even cut and transport. My contractor is proposing clearing with a track hoe and burning at the site since we don’t want to create another large pile.

Now the question comes when I asked how the pile is burned. He said it was a “secret” but they found that using old tires to ignite the pile worked well. I was not sure how to respond but I know that burning tires is not a good practice or likely even legal. But this is Tennessee. Can anyone help with a better way to “burn” a pile resulting from site clearing?
Your thoughts are appreciated. I am in zone 4 btw.

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  1. maine_tyler | | #1

    You should try to find local foresters who know thr wood market. Do you not have any chip/ biomass market, or maybe pallet grades?

    If you really truly have zero market, have you looked into tub grinders?

    What about firewood?

    1. Longstory | | #2

      Thanks for those thoughts. Our forester and loggers tell us that our log market in TN is very limited right now to certain hardwoods (we do not even have an active softwood mill at present). I'll check into the grinder possibility. I did have the lower grade trees cut to 10 ft lengths from the road access and I have several cords there to use for firewood, oak and hickory.

  2. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #3

    Yes, that is common practice and no, it should not be common practice. Even here in Maine where we have a relatively healthy lumber industry, there is little market for random loads of small-diameter or low-grade wood. Surely somewhere on your 14 acres there is space to let a pile decompose naturally instead of burning it all at once?

    1. Longstory | | #5

      Very relieved to hear that my builder is not the evil overlord of dumpster fires! I just need to rethink this and yes on our site we can decide to leave the pile on the north side of the building site as a visual barrier and additional windbreak for our occasional cold spells. Thanks!

  3. ERIC WHETZEL | | #4

    Another option would be using the wood in hügelkultur raised beds:

    I talk about our hügel bed in the second half of this blog post:

    Even if you're not interested in growing veggies, they can be used more as berms if you're looking for added privacy or even a wind break if built large enough (using various grasses, small shrubs, and flowers for an ornamental look).

    You could also post on social media and see if anyone's interested in picking some of it up for their own property:

    It couldn't hurt to look up permaculture homeowners/homesteaders/farmers in your area --- again, maybe someone local is willing to take at least some of it off your hands (one man's junk...).

    1. Longstory | | #6

      Wow, excellent ideas and I love all this. It is funny how you can feel it is better to just go the "easy" way when you don't want to create conflict. But I am too old to care anymore; I just want to do it right for once. Thanks!

      1. ERIC WHETZEL | | #7

        If you decide to go the berm route, you can also save some money by using seeds rather than nursery plants, which can get expensive fast.

        Here are some options I've had good luck with:

    2. Expert Member
      Michael Maines | | #8

      Excellent idea to use hügelkultur beds. I do that myself with medium-diameter hardwood. It gets tedious with small-diameter wood so I'm piling it up and will rent a wood chipper, which is another good resource for homesteaders. It can be used in hügelkultur but I'll use it to mulch trees.

    3. Expert Member
      DCcontrarian | | #18

      I don't know what the environment is like in TN, but I've lived almost all my life in east coast deciduous forest places. Fallen trees in the forest tend to get covered with nasty vines -- poison ivy, multiflora rose and bittersweet. They make places that are really inhospitable to people. If you want to be able to move about and enjoy the land I would recommend removing the fallen trees.

      1. Expert Member
        Michael Maines | | #21

        Burning thousands of pounds of wood and releasing thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide into the air as a way to avoid unwanted vines reminds me of my neighbor when I lived in a suburb--every fall he'd use a shopvac to clean his lawn of acorns.

        I have a 26 acre woodlot behind my house in Maine, with a headwall that makes harvesting difficult so I get to see the forest age naturally. Those vines are all problems in my region but none of them have shown up in my woods yet.

  4. Longstory | | #9

    Thanks all once again. I contacted my builder and he is going to go over options with the person clearing the site. I said tire fires were off the table and now I have some other things to do with the cleared biomass. Much appreciated!

  5. Expert Member
    DCcontrarian | | #10

    I have often burned piles like that. I just did a smallish burn on Wednesday.

    First, check your local regulations, and follow them scrupulously.

    You don't need a tire or really any accelerants. If you start a fire like you were building a campfire and let it burn down to a bed of coals you can burn just about anything.

    Don't make the pile too big, it's easy to make a pile that makes an out-of-control fire. I find the best way to control it is to have a long, narrow pile and start the burn at one end.

    It really helps to have a tractor or something to move material around.

    1. Longstory | | #12


      Having lots of small campfires but never a whole tree in my portfolio of burning experience, I had no idea how to start if we need to burn. We may not as a visual barrier and windbreak to the north of the house site may be the best solution. The view of a pile does not really matter as we are 900 feet from the road in the trees.

      1. Expert Member
        DCcontrarian | | #16

        The way you start a big fire is you start a small fire and you add to it. I don't mean to be glib, but wood wants to burn.

        The biggest risk with a big pile like that is it getting out of control. The bigger the fire, the faster it burns. For guys in the business, time is money, they want to burn it as quickly as possible. You probably don't want to take that risk, if the fire gets out of control it's your land that gets ruined. You would probably have difficulty recovering much in damages if that happens, a court would look at the economic value of the trees that were lost, and as you've noted, it's not much. Which is why someone you hire is likely to be cavalier about fire safety.

        If you decide to burn, you want the burn to go slowly enough that it stays in control. The way to do that is to limit the amount that can burn all at once. You can do that by stacking your brush in long narrow piles that are no more than six feet wide.

        A tire has about the same energy value as a gallon of oil, about 140,000 BTU. Firewood runs about 7500 BTU/lb regardless of the species, so that's about the same energy content as 20 pounds of firewood. The difference is that it's faster to get a tire burning than 20 pounds of firewood, but if you allow an extra 20 minutes or so it's not that hard. It's also the same as 20 pounds of charcoal if you want to go that route. A tire has parts that won't burn, and it's never a good idea to be putting trash into your land.

        I don't know about TN, but everywhere I've ever lived it was illegal to use tires to start a fire. There is an element of danger any time you burn. You really want to make sure you're dotting your i's and crossing your t's, because if things go sideways the local authorities and your insurance company are going to be all over you.

  6. walta100 | | #11

    Really burning is not a bad option. Adding tires is unnecessary but a few gallons of diesel is safe and effective.

    Chipping/ grinding works well and the chips can be spread on site.

    From a carbon point of view all the solutions are equal over the next 20 years as the now dead trees release their stored carbon as they break down.


    1. Longstory | | #13

      Others mentioned that a forest mulcher is a thing. I did not know they existed so I am checking around for that as well. As far as carbon is concerned, I'll be releasing mine likely before 20 years comes around, so I was trying to leave some space for my personal carbon "footprint" by not burning more than needed.

      1. charlie_sullivan | | #14

        I think you are one the right track. Yes, it will eventually mostly rot and be released as CO2, but some will go into the soil carbon, and more importantly, you will slow the release of carbon, and the next few decades are particularly critical, at least if you assume that as a whole we manage to reduce emissions after that.

      2. Expert Member
        DCcontrarian | | #17

        Mulching is a lot more work than burning. It will probably be significantly more expensive.

    2. Expert Member
      Michael Maines | | #15

      The problem with burning is that trees are about half carbon by weight and burning them releases all of that carbon into the atmosphere at once, without providing any benefit at all. At least burning wood in a stove gets you some heat, or letting it rot slowly as a hugelmound or mulch feeds mycorrhizal fungi and soil-dwelling critters.

  7. maine_tyler | | #19

    Yeah depending on tree size (we never really established that), forestry mulching may be a decent option. The big machines are efficient and are designed for that, but yes can still be expensive due to mobilization and the fact the equipment (and carbide heads) are expensive.

    "but wood wants to burn."

    I know I like to be contrary with you DC ;), but I'm gonna somewhat disagree here. It really depends on conditions. Wet wood actually doesn't love to burn all that much. I've burned many a large brush fires, and too many were tried under too wet conditions (safe against spread, but terribly frustrating and smokey). Location dependent for sure.

    Ever green does have oils that light up, but that usually isn't enough to get the pile really going in conditions I've burned in.

    I'm not convinced burning is the worse, carbon-wise, but I agree with Michiael that in theory letting it rot will send more carbon and nutrients back into the soil. But I think there may also be increased methane release vs burning.

    Also, and perhaps this is the wrong mind set, the co2 from that size burn is dwarfed by natural fires. People still use fire for forms of traditional land management (such as blueberry fields) and even to prevent larger fires (control burn).

  8. Longstory | | #20

    All good comments. I found there are companies near me that do forestry clearing and mulching but by all accords they are quite pricy for the amount of wood I need cleared and mulched. As for the size, most of the trees are under 12 inches, but I have at least 10 (White oak, hickory and a couple of beech) that are 18-24 inches at the base and 40 feet or more in height. So not that small but still not that worthwhile for the nearby mill. So I may compromise and get the clearing person to separate the large trees in one pile and the smaller trees in another and then see if a local outfit will take the larger trees for firewood, as I have enough from the first clearing of the access road for a couple of winters here in TN at least. I think we will then forgo the burning entirely. As the cleared space is so far back in the wooded lot, it is only visible to me. It is great learning about all the options and techniques others are doing for what is likely a very common first step in the building process for many. We certainly had not considered all this before we started. So thanks again.

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