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Pre-emptive war on fires

Masticator removes understory fuels

Masticator removes understory fuels

Masticator removes understory fuels

June 12, 2001 – Appeal-Democrat –

By Lois Gormley Appeal-Democrat

The low rumbling sound of the masticator reverberated through the trees, accented by the crack of timber as the machine’s unyielding teeth tore a path through the woods, chewing up small, dead and sick trees along with dense underbrush.

Following in the path of the behemoth’s tracks, the discarded carpet of shredded wood pulp, brush and tree limbs that crunch underfoot make walking a challenge, but has opened up the dense U.S. Forest Service land in a way only nature has been able to do in the past.

The larger trees, monuments to the forest’s longevity, now have room to spread their limbs and prosper while smaller suckers growing off roots or from acorns that had fallen to the ground have been removed, said James Johnson, a forester with Applied Forest Management.

The mastication has also cleared away the thick brush and climbing foliage that could provide a ladder for wildland fires up into the older, healthy trees that are the mainstay of the forest, he said.

With the unseasonably hot, dry and windy weather the north state has experienced within the last month, conditions are ripe for major wildland fires and the 2001 fire season promises to be a fierce one.

Right side of the road has been treated, left side has not

Right side of the road has been treated, left side has not

Efforts like this one, on public and private lands north of Bullards Bar Dam near Camptonville, the area around the Oregon House lookout tower and in the area surrounding the Brownsville Aero-Pines Airport, can minimize the risk of a mid-summer wildland blaze sparked by lightning or other, less natural causes.

“We definitely have a fuels problem,” said George Chapman, USFS fuels officer. “We take care of that by eliminating that fuel ladder.”

The climbing brush and low hanging limbs provide wildfires with access from the ground into the crowns of large healthy trees, he said.

By trimming off those limbs, from 6 to 10 feet up or even higher and spacing little trees at least 20 feet or more away from larger ones, the fire can be kept on the ground, said Janet Cowell, USFS mastication contract and fuels assistant.

It has other bonuses too, including making things safer for firefighters. With more open space to work in they can put in a hose line faster, Chapman said.

The work that is done with the masticator is pretty much once in a career, Cowell said.

The underbrush then continues to be maintained every five to 10 years with controlled underburning or the use of herbicides, she said.

Forest treated for fuels is healthier and fire-resistant

Forest treated for fuels is healthier and fire-resistant

“It’s good that a program like this opens people’s eyes and shows them there is something proactive they can do,” Johnson said.

He said some private landowners resisted participating in the fire retention efforts because they did not like the sparse look of the forest afterward. But, most understand that the work they are doing could save their home or that of a neighbor and helps to keep the forest healthy.

In the area around the Brownsville airport along Wildcat Ridge, Soper-Wheeler Co. has also gone to great lengths to take proactive steps against wildfires.

Paul Violett, staff forester, said the company has had a masticator on hire for most of the last five years almost non-stop.

The lumber company, which has about 100,000 acres statewide, has used the masticator on most of its lands, he said.

At the Soper Ranch, the company began serious fuel treatment in 1987, including prescribed burning, Violett said.

He said the land near Brownsville is richly fertile for the growing of timber and brush.

“We grow a lot of trees and that means we grow a lot of fuel,” Violett said. “We have to do that work that fire used to do in maintaining these fuels. It takes constant vigilance and maintenance of these efforts over time.”

Two-fold protection

Although fuels treatment, much like logging, can be unsightly at first, once the grasses and wildflowers grow in, many people change their perceptions of the practice, he said.

The company not only considers it the neighborly thing to do, it also carries financial considerations.

The Pendola fire of 1999 burned up a 20-year-old plantation, the loss of which was not insignificant for them, Violett said.

Fuels reduction project completed

Fuels reduction project completed

Currently the company is working with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s vegetation management program to conduct the underburning of about 500 acres near the Brownsville area, he said.

CDF Forester Ed Barnes said the vegetation management program has been in operation for about 20 years.

The program works with land owners on fuel reduction projects on their property, with the landowners doing as much or as little of the clearing as they are capable of, he said.

The purpose of the project with Soper-Wheeler, in the underbelly of Brownsville within the Willow Creek drainage, is actually two-fold, Barnes said.

It acts to further protect improvements and other work Soper-Wheeler Co. has done and it acts to protect the community of Brownsville, he said.

Barnes said CDF primarily works with landowners that contact the agency who are within selected areas that are strategic to fire protection – within a drainage or along a ridge.

CDF Division Chief Kelly Keenan said because of staffing limitations, the department can do only a certain number of burns each year.

Further tying their hands are changes in air quality regulations, he said.

The best alternative to burning is mastication, which leaves a mulch on the soil and increases the productivity of the forest, Keenan said.

Landowners seeking to reduce the fuels on their land can find monetary assistance through various programs like the Environmental Quality Incentive Program through the National Resource Conservation Service and the California Forest Improvement Program.

Chapman said the fuels treatment project being done on USFS land is funded by grant money and money set aside by the Clinton administration after the wildfires that ravaged many of the western states last season.

That money has also provided for more engines, personnel and other equipment like helicopters, he said.

They are hoping that additional funding will come their way this fiscal year, Chapman said.

On private lands, in certain dense areas, Yuba County is participating in a cost share program along with landowners.

Landowners hire contractors to come in and clear the underbrush on their property and pay anywhere from 20 to 75 percent of the cost depending on the size of their property, with the county picking up the balance, Johnson said.

Clearing with a masticator costs approximately $700 an acre and about $500 an acre by smaller machine. By hand the cost is about $800 per acre, he said.

From a fire fuels standpoint, Keenan said the CDF monitors the fuel moisture content of the forest stands twice a month, all year long, and currently conditions are extremely dry.

The moisture of dead fuels are at levels that normally wouldn’t been until September and the live fuel levels are a minimum of two weeks ahead of where they should be, he said.

“Both live and dead fuels are very dry,” he said. “We encourage people to clear around their structures.”

But he stressed the work should be done in the early morning hours when the moisture levels of the vegetation are higher.

He said many people like to mow down their weeds, which is fine, but all it takes is one rock to cause a spark that could ignite the vegetation.

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