Wed December 02, 2020
Forest–fire fuels reduction in California is an evolving and developing process. Just as this process is becoming more important than ever, the machines contractors use to get the job done is just as important. Machine characteristics contractors consider when purchasing a machine for fuel reduction include:
Reliability — can the machine hold up with minimal down time;
Maneuverability — grade and slope capability while maintaining operator confidence;
Production — How many acres per hour can be cleared and where can production be accomplished;
Finished product — The ability to determine the final size of the finished product;
Comfort/confidence — The ability to confidently operate the machines all day in a safe and quiet cab that is OSHA approved for low noise and high-quality air standards;
Support — this includes parts availability, dealer and manufacturer technical support and information, and rapid service support.
Jim Cunningham of Global Machinery, an FAE dealer located in Sacramento, Calif., and an industry expert at matching a situation with the right machine and attachments, said the challenge for contractors who do the grinding for forestry fuels reduction on the West Coast are limited with the hours they can work based the Daily Project Activity Level (PAL), which is based on the weather conditions and the moisture levels that impact the level of fire risk.
Cunningham added that in the fire areas, when the temperatures can reach up to 90F and it's a windy day, the gusts are very heated and do not provide a reprieve from the high temperatures, which add to the fire danger. These high winds also can easily take the tops off trees, especially in areas like the Sierras. These treetops dry out on the ground and add to the forestry fuel. Add high winds to a fire, and a rapid spread is encountered.
As far as forest health, according to Cunningham, it all comes down to water. The small trees, under-brush and fallen treetops rob the larger trees of rainwater. When tall trees don't have enough rain, they cannot produce enough sap to battle the tree beetles. The tree beetles then decimate the trees and the forest, resulting in dry dead trees and heavy underbrush.
Brad Kingsley, owner of Kingsley Grinding, has seemingly found one of his main "go-to machines" for forestry fuels reduction with the purchase of an FAE Primetech PT-175. This is one of the more compact and versatile prime movers on the market that he purchased from Cunningham of Global Machinery.
Kingsley was working on a job for private land owners while he was actively engaged in cleaning up an area that had previously been affected by the King Fire of 2014 which, many years later, is still considered a burn scar. Kingsley was tasked to clear away the ground vegetation and any dead and/or dying trees that may be of a future fire hazard. The burn scar is extra dusty and becomes a challenging site with regards to visibility while working in the area. The PT-175 prime mover has been a tremendous asset on this project and many others that Kingsley is engaged in.
Joe Garrett of Garret Forest Management, El Dorado County, Calif., has been in business for more than a decade working with private landowners and a few federal and state agencies in fuels reduction projects. His crews go through and "drop, then thin" small trees and vegetation with an FAE UML HY Bite Limiter excavator mulcher and pole saws and then finish grinding everything with their skid steer with an FAE UML SSL 150 VT drum mulcher, both units purchased from Global Machinery.
"Fire prevention and forest health go hand in hand," said Garrett. "Unfortunately, it usually takes the fires to get going before people think about the health of their property."
When asked about his fire mitigation projects and if they've proven to save properties when fires came in close proximity, Garrett said, "Most definitely, we've done thousands of acres across El Dorado County. Being a small county, you either know or get to know the firemen who respond to these fires. Word gets around when you created the anchor point for them to set up and back burn to save some houses.
"Our work sells itself," Garrett added. "We're never going to be able to prevent the fires with what we do, but by totally removing the understory and improving the forest health, we can help keep the fires on the ground. A fire is like any catastrophic disaster. Everyone forgets that it can happen until it happens. Unfortunately, when there's a big fire, the calls start pouring in and by that time it could be too late. The optimal time to perform fire mitigation is spring, winter, fall and early summer. We can work throughout the summer, but with dust, fire dangers and Project Activity Levels [PAL] precautions, we cannot get in as much production."
Garrett said that work during fire season can actually be slow.
"Every morning we have to call the Project Activity Level line and they give us different levels of how we can work. For example, at a C level we can work all day, at D level we can work all day but we have to have a fire watch while we're working and two hours after, and EV level we can only work until 1 p.m., and then have to have patrol the job site for two hours looking for accidental fire starts. These are days where fuel moisture is low and there are worries about winds. This is why production can be low during the summer and it's just one of the things we deal with. We don't want to be the reason the fire starts, but the reason they can stop it."
Owen Wadsworth, operations manager/owning member of Red Mountain Resources, a Georgetown-based re-forestation contractor that does work throughout the entire United States, said, "Our bread and butter has always been using our hand crews. We've done a lot of hand tree planting, but only recently in California due to the popularity of fuels reduction and a result of the wildfires they've been suffering from. We've been getting more involved with fuels reduction and found it convenient to incorporate the FAE PT-300 because a lot of jobs require both hand crews and machines."
According to Wadsworth, his company is using an FAE-Primetech PT-300 prime mover, a purchase from Global Machinery, to target brush and to open up areas for the hand crews to come in. This piece of equipment makes it a much smoother process than in the past where the company was reliant on other contractors to come in do the clearing. Now, his company can do it on its own.
Another big advantage for the use of prime movers in fuel reductions is that much of the public lands can't use herbicide.
"What we're seeing is a lot of these mega fires coming through on public lands where they cannot use herbicide, and the fires are brushing in really heavy. In order to take over the site they have to do a mechanical mitigation or burn it again. Fire is a pretty touchy subject here, so it's strictly mechanical," Wadsworth said.
"We've been able to take on anything that was thrown at us with the PT-300," he added. "Where the PT really shines is a brush field that they are trying to reinvent into a timber stand, or they are trying to make a safety zone for structures."
Joel Fonoimoana, Primetech operator of Red Mountain Resources, who was operating in the French Meadows, Tahoe National Forest, added his thoughts to the topic of fuels reduction. "The main thing is, by eliminating the fuel ladders, it helps prevent the fire's ability to spread as quickly by keeping the barrier low to the ground. If a fire happens to start, then it will only burn the vegetation that was left. Anything that is left is intentional."
Red Mountain Resources currently has two FAE Primetech PT-300's purchased from Global Machinery and both machines are working well for its fuels reductions contracts.
Fonoimoana added that the forestry services "like to leave clumps of low brush, what they might call a mosaic. The spacing may vary but the premise is that they don't want to totally annihilate all the underbrush on public lands. The big goal is removal of fuel ladders — meaning any living or dead vegetation that allows a fire to climb from the forest floor to the tree canopy."