Preparing the fire on the altar was the job of the kohen who won the payis – the lottery – (see above, daf 26) for the terumat hadeshen – removing ash from the altar. The Gemara in Massekhet Yoma (daf 22a) explains that this was established by the Sages to encourage participation in the payis since relatively few kohanim came to participate in the lottery, thinking that it was unlikely that they would win. The additional privilege of arranging the fire persuaded more kohanim to participate.
The Mishna explains that the winner’s fellow kohanim would assist him by handing him the wood, but it was his job to arrange them appropriately:
They then began raising logs onto the altar to assemble the arrangement of wood on which the offerings were burned. Is wood from all trees fit for the arrangement? Wood from all trees is fit for the arrangement except from the vine and the olive tree. What they were accustomed to use, however, were young branches of fig trees, nut trees, and pinewood. The priest then assembled the large arrangement of wood on the east side of the altar with its open side on the east, and the inner ends of the selected logs would touch the circular heap of ashes.
Two reasons are offered in the Gemara to explain why grape vines and olive wood were not used on the altar. Rav Pappa teaches that they made too much smoke. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov teaches that it was detrimental to the “Settlement of the Land of Israel.” Since cutting down these trees would deplete these resources, making it more difficult to find wine and oil in Israel, such trees were considered inappropriate for use on the altar.
The Mishneh LeMelekh explains that the Gemara did not suggest that such wood could not be used because of the prohibition of bal tash’ḥit – that it is forbidden to destroy fruit trees (see 20:19) – since that only applies to entire trees and not to the branches of trees. The Be’er Sheva argues that cutting down trees for use on the altar would not be considered “destructive” since it was done for the purpose of an important mitzva.