January February 2005
 

 

 

 

Cleaning up

The Timbco-Quadco team used to thin and reclaim the forest

By Kurt Glaeseman

Timbco 425-D excavator (on tracks) with standard boom equipped with the rotary disc mulcher made by Quadco (Bushco 52” Brush cutter). The photos were taken in July, 2004, at the Hot Springs Project of the Tahoe National Forest. The machine combination is owned by Carl Roen of Sierraville, CA.

It’s been compared to a giant weed-whacker, a mechanical brush-eater with a rotary head that grazes at the boom end of a Timbco 425-D. This is one of Sierra Machinery’s firebreak and thinning workhorses—a 52- inch Quadco Brush Cutter head (the Brushco 52) mounted on a standard boom Timbco 425 excavator. It’s a dynamite combination, cutting a 52-inch swath through ground brush, fuel ladders and unwanted trees. The brush cutter, weighing in at 3700 pounds, has a 6-inch tree size capacity when working off the side and almost unlimited capacity when mulching from top of tree downward. The twenty teeth on the rotary disc mulcher are bolt-on, four-sided— and easily replaceable.

It’s a user-friendly machine. Operator Brett Gibford maneuvers gently between “leave trees,” watching intently for partially submerged boulders, stabilizing with head and boom as he works the steep terrain above Sierraville, California. Gibford reviews the specs for this Hot Springs Project of the Tahoe National Forest. Healthy trees with an 11-inch or bigger DBH are to be left, preferably with a 20-foot spacing. Brush is to be cut within six inches of the ground and within one foot of rock outcroppings. Residual chop should be no greater than four foot in length and four inches in diameter. Cedar and white fir are to be kept in this predominantly Ponderosa pine slope, but manzanita, snowbrush and some green annual vegetation should be removed. A clean park-like landscape emerges from yesterday’s brushy jungle.

Operator Brett Gibford ready to check the Quadco head.

The Hot Springs Project had burned in the 1970s and was thinned later by a chainsaw crew. Now, some thirty years later, the Forest Service is doing proactive fire prevention maintenance, and mechanical cleaning is proving efficient and cost effective. Francey Blaugrund, an employee of the Bass Lake Ranger District, comments on a typical Region 5 plan: “Thinning activities are designed to achieve the multiple objectives of increased resistance to damage from crown fires, reduced surface/ladder fuels, reduced insect damage and inter-tree competition, and restoration of densities more characteristic of the past under the influences of natural fire regimes.”

Of course, fuel reduction and thinning are a very efficient method of creating fuel breaks that tie into “urban interface.” Blaugrund points out that mechanical thinning and fuels reduction of woody brush vegetation, conifers, and oaks can be cost effective only under certain components. Usually dense brush covers the majority of the project area. The steepness of the terrain (slope) must be suitable for the equipment. The brush species must not be capable of immediately resprouting. Trees to be mulched must be less than 10 inches in diameter. And a fine distinction between “leave” and “cut” trees is not critical. The above criteria create an ideal opportunity for equipment like the rotary disc mulchers, which, according to the Benefits of Mechanical Fuels Treatment to the Forest study, can leave an evenly scattered woody mulch on top of the soil, thus providing a cushion to disperse the weight of the excavator.

Quadco (rotary disc mulcher) head devouring or demolishing a tree. The head is positioned directly over the doomed tree and then lowered onto it, grinding it to chips as the head settles downward.

This mulch also acts as a temperature and sunlight barrier for seeds present in the soil. The moisture in the soil is also shaded and therefore available for a longer period of time for the “leave trees.” It stands to reason that smaller excavators like the Timbco 425-D generate fewer pounds per square inch of weight on the soil, and recovery to the processed area is much quicker.

Brett Gibford appears cool and comfortable with the Timbco 425-D, but he is the first to admit that there’s a lot more to the process than knowing how to operate the controls. If he goes too fast, he can tear up the soil more than necessary and risk collateral damage to ”leave trees.” If the soil is too wet, undue compaction is created. An unnoticed rock can dull or damage the teeth or blade, and fire from sparks is always a danger. Gibford is responsible for keeping an eye on hydraulic pressure, for maintaining sharp teeth on the head, for constant surveillance of the work terrain, and for coordinating his operator’s finesse with the objectives of the task.

A healthier, more open stand of Ponderosa pines will flourish.

Running the mulcher recalls a certain element of sport, too. Positioning the head over a doomed tree is like finding the sweet spot in a tennis racket. “You don’t want to hit the tree dead center,” says Gibford, “or the head will go down thumping and bumping. A contact point just inside the 20-tooth circumference is best. Then it’s a smooth grind down.” Gibford, worked for an excavation company in Truckee before hiring on as a cowboy with Carl Roen’s Sierra Valley Ranch.

Roen recognized Gibford’s mechanical ability and convinced him to work the Timbo excavator that Roen had purchased for fire patrol backup and contract work with the Forest Service. Some folks say I’m just running a glorified weed-eater,” laughs Gibford, “but I know for a fact that it pays better than cowboying.” He’s justifiably fond of the Timbco and its 52-inch Quadco head. Maintenance involves daily greasing and constant checks for oil leaks. Occasionally teeth need replacing on the head, but after 300 hours with the combination, Gibford reports no serious problems. Shane Burrill, Territory Manager for Sierra Machinery Services, Inc., interjects: “Roen’s Timbco is a clean machine with low hours. It’s like the used car driven by a little old lady only on Sundays. It certainly hasn’t been beaten to hell.”

Gibford agrees and adds ironically that they’ve had more problems with the radios he and his aide-de-camp use to communicate to and from the landing. His landing helper is college student Lacey Maddalena, who grew up on a ranch near Sierraville. One of her critical jobs is to monitor weather conditions and relay information to Gibford. If low humidity and high temperatures elicit a rating of 4 from the Forest Service, they must quit operating by one o’clock. If the rating is 5, they must shut down immediately.

Maddalena is no stranger to steep hikes from the landing to the work area, a 5000-foot elevation grind that could be a mandatory workout routine for certain Olympian athletes. If there is an early shutdown, Gibford descends to the landing and Maddalena helps clean the machine of twigs and lodged sticks. The Timbco and the two work pickups always seem to need a bath, but she is philosophical about the extra work: “I’m putting away some money for school. The hours are good. I like what I’m doing and I like where I am. Look down at the valley by Sierraville. What could be prettier?” Maddalena isn’t the only one who loves the country.

In the last few years, more folks are “discovering” the picturesque scenery north of Truckee. They are attracted to the quiet ranches, the high elevation meadows, the scent of pine trees, and that magic combination of cowboy and logging country. Everyone has become more sensitive about fire — the old-timers, the newcomers, the park officials, and anyone connected with fire patrol. And people are pleased with the treatment Roen and Gibford and Maddalena are administering to the forest. When they exit an area, unwanted brush and snags and fuel ladders are gone. With their fine-tuned machinery and operating skill they have recreated a clean and healthy forest. That’s a great improvement over a crown fire catastrophe waiting to happen!

TW

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This page was last updated on Wednesday, March 23, 2005