By Greg Ehm
It’s no secret the Western United States has had challenges with wild fires in recent years. States in this region of the country have been working diligently for years to remove vegetation that serves as fuel to forest fires. It’s a process that will take years to complete and help is on the way.
With the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the state of Nevada is receiving $1.3 million to help accelerate its efforts to create fuel breaks that will help protect local communities from devastating wild fires, while enhancing the overall health of the forest. Better yet, it’s helping to create 26 jobs and save three others in an area with a nation-leading unemployment rate.
The Nevada Division of Forestry is using the stimulus grant to initiate fuel reduction activities on 1,681 acres of forest land within the state. Chris Faehling is a fire protection officer within the Nevada Division of Forestry who is overseeing activities on state, private and county lands in the southern region of the state that includes Lincoln, Park, Nye and Esmeralda Counties.
“Five years ago, the state conducted an assessment evaluating the fire risk among rural communities,” said Faehling. “Now we are using the assessments by taking a holistic view of what needs to be done in each rural community identified with a high fire danger, helping to mitigate the risk through fuel reduction. We treat the most serious area first and then work our way down from there.”
Imagine a wildfire, either encroaching upon a community or starting within that may have the potential to spread to other lands. The goal of the program is to minimize the risk and that can be accomplished through creating fire breaks or defensible spaces. Fire breaks involve the reduction of flammable vegetation between two zones while defensible space creates an area around an individual’s property, allowing for the safe deployment of firefighters to protect property structures from wild fires.
Neither process involves clear cutting. Instead the work involves creating space in between the vegetation so that when a fire does approach, it doesn’t have a continuous path to burn all the way through, yet it’s still aesthetically pleasing.
Faehling is concentrating on removing vegetation in the rights-of-way along 40 miles of Highway 93 and State Route 319 near the towns of Pioche, Panaca and Caliente. The project involves removing mature Pinyon and Juniper trees measuring up to 40 feet in height. The vegetation is removed to within 100 feet of each side of the road
“We’re creating a fuel break between the public lands and along the sides of the highway,” said Faehling. “As an added bonus, we are also creating a safer driving environment offering motorist more visibility to animals that may wander along the road.”
The program began in April 2009 with the goal of treating approximately 850 acres of land along the highway right-of-way in the four-county area. By August 2009, almost 500 acres had been treated.
“We’ve made great progress so far, but it wouldn’t have been possible without our subcontractors,” says Faehling.
One of those subcontractors is First Choice Tree Service, based in Las Vegas, which specializes in commercial and residential tree care services throughout the valley. The company was formed by Tony Valenti back in 1989 with a handful of employees and today employs more than 60 people. First Choice Tree Service has four certified arborists on staff, as well as a full-time safety director. The company was also recently accredited by the Tree Care Industry Association.
First Choice Tree Services began working in the fuel reduction field about five years ago and was awarded the Lincoln, Park, Nye and Esmeralda County project through a competitive bidding process. The project also required First Choice Tree Services to hire additional workers.
“We were able to bring six new employees onto our payroll for the duration of this project,” said Valenti. “The project has made a definite positive impact on those six individual lives.”
The project is located about 300 miles north of Las Vegas, so the First Choice Tree service crews travel to the site on a Monday, work until Friday, and then head back to the home office. The company has had as many as four three-man crews working on the project.
The crews approach the work like any other takedown project. The trees within the 100-foot right-of-way are flagged and cut down. They are then cut into 4-foot sections for easier handling and fed into a brush chipper. For the most part the right-of-way areas are mostly flat so the equipment can be pulled near the individual work areas, reducing worker travel.
The resulting chips are being used in one of two ways – biomass fuel and ground cover. The project has generated approximately 5,600 cubic yards of chips to date. Of that total, 2,800 cubic yards of chips have been shipped to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City to be used as a green fuel. The remaining chips are being spread back onto the ground in a layer not exceeding 2 inches. The ground cover helps retain soil moisture and retards the growth of noxious weeds, such as sheet grass.
“This is pretty grueling and time consuming work for our crews,” says Valenti. “So far the team has excelled and kept the project on schedule.”
Just treating the rights-of-way isn’t the only component to the project. The stimulus funds are also being used to eradicate 30 acres of invasive plant species in Beaver Dam State Park, along with removing Juniper tress that have been infected with pocket rot in a 400-acre area. Other efforts include work at Spring Valley to remove and replace 600 dead and diseased trees and scrubs in a 20 acre campground area, reseeding approximately 150 acres of land and 30 acres of fuel load reduction in Echo Valley State Park.
So far the project is a win-win for the environment, rural communities and local labor force.
Greg Ehm is a feature writer with Two Rivers Marketing, Des Moines, Iowa.
Article provided by Vermeer Corporation, Pella, Iowa. For more information visit www.vermeer.com