After the burn

Some good will come from the recent wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula. You might not see it right now, looking at 200,000 acres of dead, blackened snags, but the good is there.

Until their roots rot and the wind blows them over, many of these “burn poles” will stand there for years, so get used to them. And try not to think of them as dirty, ugly and useless. After they’ve shed their burnt bark and weathered for a few years, they take on a light-gray hue. Trees with a story to tell, ghost-like burn poles add variety and character to what otherwise might be a lackluster landscape.

The black spruces, in particular, remain tough and hard for years after a fire. They have many uses. When used as firewood, they burn slowly, almost like charcoal. The tops of small burn poles make great fish bonkers, fire pokers and walking sticks. One of my grandkids had great sport using one to bat rocks from my driveway into the woods. For years, I used a burn pole as a ridge pole to suspend a tarp over my boat in wintertime. I used the same pole as a lever to pry stumps out of the ground.

Most of Sterling, where I live, burned in the huge wildfire of 1947, so it’s a rare resident who hasn’t knowingly or unknowingly used a burn pole for something or other. Dillon Kimple, who moved here from Washington State 50 years ago, remembers using burn poles for building a shed, as well as a log crib for a septic system drain field. He also recalls a friend who made furniture with the smaller-size burn poles. Lumber was expensive and hard to come by back then. Burn poles, on the other hand, were free and there for the taking.

One of my neighbors found that a 30-foot burn pole serves well as a flag pole. If you’re looking for tough, rustic-looking fence rails, you can do worse than burn poles.

Sterling resident Norm Israelson, who now lives where the ‘47 burn jumped the Kenai River on its way south, says he likes using the small burn poles for making legs for stools and tables. A neighbor of his built a nice-looking spiral staircase out of them.

“They’re as hard as seasoned oak,” Israelson says, and they’re real pretty. I’ve made dozens of tables with them. I clean them up with a belt sander.”

He bemoans the fact that they’re just about gone in Sterling now.

Sterling homesteader Cotton Moore, famous for his “Ribs by Cotton Moore,” once shared with me that he used burned and seasoned spruce burn poles to generate the smoke for his barbecues. You wouldn’t want to use spruce that hadn’t been burned in a forest fire for this, but the cooked kind works well.

Bill Iverson, who lives near the end of Funny River Road, tells me that he, too, likes burn poles for making furniture.

Those black spruces may not have been doing much before the fire, but now they’re going to come in handy.


Les Palmer can be reached at

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