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Brush clearing takes root

Whether born out of a heightened awareness or just plain fear, brush clearing has becoming a booming cottage industry for Nevada County.

The danger of wildfire – made a reality to many Nevada County residents by the devastating 49er fire of 1988 – has made this area perfect spawning waters for the companies, which usually employ just a handful of workers.

State grant money in the past few years has also found its way to Nevada County, helping the industry to grow.



Yet the regulation of this fledgling industry has much “gray area,” says Kevin Whitlock, the California Department of Forestry forester who oversees the California Forest Improvement Program, which helps people to pay for clearing their land. Technically speaking, “when you are manipulating vegetation, you must have a registered forester; you’ve got all the CEQA things to think about,” he said.

Foresters are trained to spot potential water quality and wildlife issues, as well as, just how to grow a healthy, aesthetically good-looking forest.




For residents to hire a forester, however, the cost can make it prohibitive for clearing their brush. This puts them in another interesting quandary – not clearing their land and facing potential safety risks, insurance liability, and enforcement by local fire agencies.

The good news is that Nevada County is an area once ripe with career loggers, making this newest industry hardly lacking in expertise.

“There are a lot of extremely qualified contractors in this area, there are some excellent operators out there and a lot of them of course get really busy during the fire season,” said Tom Amesbury, a forester with the Foresters Co-Op.

“You see (former loggers) selling their tractors and buying small masticators,” Whitlock said.

One such man is Phil King of Sierra Land Improvement, of Grass Valley, a five-year old brush clearing company.

“When I was younger, I used to log with several different companies, just working in the woods,” he said. “Back when I was logging, I’d get talking to the rangers and (I was able to) see which way the industry was going.”

As the Sierra logging industry floundered, a series of events began unfolding that would set these former loggers up for their future.

First, the 49er fire swept down from the San Juan Ridge on Sept. 11, 1988. It left more than 150 homes and 350 structures in the Rough and Ready and Lake Wildwood areas burned in its wake. The memory of how quickly that fire spread is still strong and alive in the minds of many area residents.

Nevada County was not alone, just as California’s population burgeoned, the following years saw both new and old communities burned by wildfire. The Nevada County Fire Safe Council was born as a resource for residents to learn about fire safety.

People were building further into the forests and in 2002, the California legislature passed two public safety codes – 4290 and 4291, requiring people to have their homes surrounded by 30 feet of area cleared of brush.

It was a way of protecting both people’s properties, as well as, the lives of firefighters.

The CFIP program under Proposition 40 received an unprecedented amount of funding in 2004-05, of which Nevada County scored nearly $1.5 million. The area received $750,000 this year, all of which is already allocated, Whitlock said. This was followed in 2005 by a statewide change of the 30-foot clearance law to 100 feet. Counties began exploring the possibilities of adopting fire plans residents could use as a guide on how to clear their land. Nevada County is widely regarded as having taken the lead on its plan, being the first to have a countywide plan.

In August 2004, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the Fire Plan in front of a packed hall.

Enforcement of the plan is lacking and the supervisors are expected this year to begin passing resolutions that would give fire officials its needed teeth. Meanwhile, the Nevada County Consolidated Fire Department instituted a law that makes residents responsible for uncleared brush. Instead of the widely rumored fine, the ordinance allows the department to go onto a property if a landowner refuses to clear the brush, clearing it for them. The property owner is then required to foot the bill, Whitlock said.

The heightened regulations coupled with available CFIP money, has meant companies like Sierra Land Improvement are never without work.

“We stay really busy just by word of mouth,” said King, “we are booked four months out.”

Whitlock says he hopes that the awareness and education will make more people conscientious of taking good care of their lands.

“The stewardship idea, that’s really what I want to focus on.”

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To contact staff writer Brittany Retherford, e-mail brittanyr@theunion.com or call 477-4247.

Information, tips

on brush clearing

To learn more about fire safety or available wood chipping services, visit the Nevada County Fire Safe Council at http://www.firesafecouncilnevco.com or call 272-1122.

Tips on how to find a reputable local company to clear your brush:

• Hire a forester to learn about your forested land.

• Start soliciting operators, comparing prices.

• Look at contractors’ previous work.

• Hire someone you know you’ll be able to work well with.

• Have a contract and make sure it meets specific standards. It does not necessarily have to be the company’s contract.

• Make sure the company has insurance, minimum $1 million liability.

• Know what kind of equipment the company plans to use.

• Call references.

• Trust your gut.

Source: Tips by Kevin Whitlock, California Department of Forestry forester


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