Hot market for fire prevention
Fire prevention has become big business in Nevada County. While property owners scramble to comply with state regulations set into action last year, county lawmakers are proposing even tougher restrictions for the future.
As soon as the sun came out, local brush clearing companies were inundated with calls.
“The phone is working real good right now,” said Joe Cummings, owner of Nevada County Brush Clearing and Hauling. His company works year round but gets three times busier in the spring.
“I knew five years ago that this would be big,” said Troy Sidebottom of All Phase Land Clearing, who made the switch from landscaping a couple of years ago. Cummings and Sidebottom take pride in their delicate work and the quality of the finished “park-like” settings they create. The cost isn’t cheap – anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 an acre, depending on the vegetation and terrain. Even with price tags like that, Sidebottom is booked for six months with a month’s wait just for estimates.
Urgency comes with the first warm days and an increased pressure from state and local governments to get the county fire safe. Sidebottom figures for every street in Nevada County, only about two homes are properly cleared. Rural properties with an accumulation of dry tinder or “ladder fuels” such as manzanita, blackberry, toyon, and crowded small trees are in the most danger. Clearing brush in Nevada County will be a never-ending battle.
“This will be an ongoing thing for the rest of our lives,” said Boyd Johnson, Fire Chief for the North San Juan Fire Department.
Beginning May 1, many Nevada County property owners could get a knock on their door by a California Department of Forestry inspector enforcing a law that went into effect last summer. Public Resource Code 42-91 requires property owners to clear a 100-foot perimeter of defensible space around their homes.
Banner Mountain and Cascade Shores will be targeted first. Inspectors will make visual assessments of property and check for pine needles removed from roofs, grasses hacked with weed eaters and brush cleared for the first 30 feet. The remaining 70 feet must be clear of ladder fuels and trees should be limbed 10 feet up the trunks to reduce the fires reaching the forest canopies.
Violation forms will be filled out and left on the premises with about a three-week time frame to comply with the law. Technically people could be fined but heavy-handed policing isn’t the objective.
“The idea behind it is that people’s houses and property can be saved,” said Garrett McInnis, CDF Battalion Chief for western Nevada County.
The county has proposed a controversial plan of its own that recommends 200 feet defensible space plus similar clearing on 80 percent of the land for properties of 10 acres or less. The cost to homeowners will be steep and land-clearing companies that attended the Home and Garden Show heard the outcries.
“The average person is having a hard time coming up with the money,” said Sidebottom.
Various grant money is available and the Fire Safe Council offers free land clearing to low-income seniors and disabled residents. They also offer free chipping services for people clearing their lands themselves.
With the water table high and brush supple, now is prime time for land clearing. In five years the number of local brush clearing companies have grown from three to nine, with more work than they can manage.
For Phil King, co-owner of Sierra Land Improvement, brush clearing was a logical evolution from his logging industry background.
“I like the woods,” he said. “That’s where it all started.”
Interaction with foresters gave King insight into the way the fire prevention industry was headed. His company takes a feng shui approach to “firescaping” – transforming both large three-figure acreage and small Lake Wildwood lots.
King grew up here and remembers the devastation the 49er fire caused when 33,700 acres burned along with 312 structures. Since that time, large oaks were replaced by dense brush and scrub oak, which King claims is a fuel load five times what it was in 1989.
“People don’t understand how high a risk our county is in,” King said. “It’s just a Roman candle waiting to go off.”
Sierra Land Improvement used the first horizontal mower in the county – a machine with a four and half-foot drum that spins horizontally like a giant rototiller. A mulching head turns woody debris into a fine, feathery powder. This way the waste material is recycled rather than becoming landfill fodder or causing air pollution by burning.
He thinks the Nevada County Fire Plan is a good idea and that the expense of preventative measures is far less than the cost to replace a burned home.
“If you don’t start harsh you’re not even going to make a dent,” said King. “A 100-foot firebreak is by no means going to save your house.” When 3,000 degree fires are that close the heat can melt glass windows, he added.
Common land-clearing concerns voiced by property owners include environmental impacts to soils, threats to endangered species, loss of habitat for animals, loss of privacy when natural barriers are removed and loss of aesthetic beauty of wild lands.
Land-clearing companies counter the concerns. They say extreme care is taken when using the heavy equipment. They use rubber tracts soft enough to cross a manicured lawn, they leave large trees alone and comb the grounds giving it a finished, aesthetically pleasing look. Not only does clearing property provide fire protection, it increases property value and can enhance views says Cummings.
Hand crews are used when terrain is too rocky or steep. Root systems are left in the soil and 1 to 4 inches of wood chips are laid down to prevent erosion.
Because roots remain, homeowners must maintain the groomed land in following years to keep pesky brush shoots from growing back. Goats are an environmentally sensitive alternative to herbicide sprays. If homeowners are diligent about keeping back the regrowth, it could be another six to seven years before brush clearing companies would have to be called again.
Masticators have veracious appetites and can chew through the most gnarled blackberry vines.
“Five minutes with a machine can take care of what five guys in an hour can do,” said Cummings.
It’s not uncommon to find engine blocks, tires with rims and other scrap metal buried in the brambles causing damage to the blades. Upkeep and maintenance is costly and Sidebottom says he spends $7,000 every 300 to 500 hours.
Over the last century, fire suppression efforts have saved thousands of homes and lives but have led to a build up of brush that was once controlled by wildfires, Native Americans and early settlers.
The debate about how to protect wild lands and private property will continue to grow hotter as more and more people move to forested areas.
“The bottom line is we all live here,” said King. “It’s not a matter of if, but when. If we don’t start getting ready for it, we’re going to burn up like Southern California.”
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