BioCycle Magazine

Fire prevention strategies, storm cleanup

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Courtesy of Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

WHEN IT comes to the importance of clearing dead and diseased trees as a fire prevention step, Wayne Williams of San Diego County, California is living (and breathing) it. “I was walking around the fire zone, and where residents had cleared spaces around their homes, the house was usually saved,” says Williams. “Houses without a firebreak, or on a ridge (where fire can leap out of a canyon), were burnt down.”

Williams is the county's Recycling Coordinator, and as such he gets involved with wood and green waste management, including fire prevention strategies. The county has policies on how to clear vegetation from structures, suggesting a 100-foot space. After the last major fire in 2003, the county established a $40 million program for clearing dead and diseased trees from around buildings. Just minutes before our conversation with Williams, he heard about the great success of the program, which is said to have saved many hundreds of homes. “Of course, some firebreaks will fail, but usually it has to do with wind, rocks deflecting, etc. Overall, it looks like the firebreaks work, although we'll always be refining techniques,” explains Williams.

There are suggestions that sections of chaparral, shrubby plants endemic to California, should be clear-cut to make better firebreaks. Williams, who is trained as a botanist, has concerns about the loss of native vegetation, and how much should be removed. However, after touring the burnt area recently he stated that he would definitely clear the area around his house, if he lived in a chaparral zone. “The biggest change that needs to happen is for people to understand that chaparral is greater than we are,” says Williams. He notes that changes in zoning would be useful, because homes are increasingly being built in the chaparral zone. “To reduce such heavy losses in the future, we need to change our attitude about what suburban sprawl is all about.”

Right now, the October fires look to be a billion dollar loss for the county. Besides housing and property damage, there are other losses, for instance 20,000 avocado trees. The county is looking at how to fund cleanup, with money from FEMA and other aid services. After the fire in 2003, money from those sources was used to contract private companies for debris cleanup. So far, Williams has seen a lot of cooperation amongst community groups.

Bushwackers, in Auburn, California, has been creating defensible spaces for 20 years. Scott Serenbetz, the company's president and founder, started doing this work when he was only 17, and would rent the equipment needed (wood chippers, chain saws, etc.). The company grew from there, and Serenbetz now has 6 to 12 employees, depending on the season; spring and summer are the busiest, although occasionally the rush extends into fall. Bushwackers uses a 2680 Bandit Beast Recycler and two Bandit track chippers (Models 254 and 1890). Although he has a wood yard at his facility, Serenbetz says that most of the processing is done on the job sites.

Bushwackers works with building contractors as well as local fire departments. Over the past 20 years, the company's services have transformed a great deal, especially with the increased mobility of newer equipment. Track chippers allow access to hillsides and remote spots, which a combination chipper/truck could only service with complicated logistics: the land had to be cleared, and then brush had to be brought downhill to the truck, which wasn't always feasible. With the track chippers, the material doesn't need to be centralized, and is generally broadcasted; the chips are beneficial for erosion control and to keep weeds down, notes Serenbetz. For larger jobs, such as a residence with several large trees and stumps, the material is shipped off as biomass fuel. “For fire prevention, the track chipper is best - you go in, chip and broadcast, and you're done,” he says.

The company currently has a contract with the city of Auburn to create a firebreak in the Auburn Canyon. The city manages federal grants for fire hazard reduction to fund the job to protect nearby homes. “Because it involves home owners, you have to make sure what you're clearing makes them happy. It's on their property,” explains Serenbetz. The initial job of thinning out growth and trimming trees on the mile-long stretch took roughly two years, but is almost finished. Then the task will be to handle regrowth and weed abatement.

Bushwackers is also called for cleanup after fires, such as after a fire caused by a PG&E failure in 2005 that burnt roughly 20 acres, including one home. Homeowners of the two adjacent properties affected hired the company, and were reimbursed by PG&E. Bushwackers, although consulted about the fires in San Diego, has not worked with national or state forest services as of yet. It turned out to be too costly to ship workers and equipment to San Diego, which is almost a 10-hour drive from Auburn.

Phillips & Jordan (P&J), established in 1952, is both a general and a specialty contractor, specializing in a range of land clearing operations. Disaster recovery services are a strong point for P&J, which has been called on for most of the major hurricanes in the southern U.S., as well as for cleanup after the September 11th tragedy. The company does everything, from work at the site, transportation to a facility, reduction and disposal. Ritchie Trammell runs the North Carolina disposal site for P&J, where they handle all manner of materials related to storm debris.

All told, Trammell estimates that P&J has over 1,000 pieces of equipment to accomplish the variety of tasks prescribed in storm debris cleanup. At his particular facility, they use three HogZilla (CW Mill Equipment Co., Inc.) track-mounted tub grinders - two Model 1464 units, which are larger and harder to mobilize, and one Model 1462. Storm debris is brought to the site from any number of haulers, and is immediately placed into three separate piles: vegetative, white goods (refrigerators, washing machines, etc.) and construction and demolition (C&D) debris.

The white goods are pressure washed, inspected for harmful materials and then pressed into bales for recycling. The C&D debris is mostly shipped to landfills, because reduction is difficult without serious equipment changes. The vegetative material accounts for the bulk of what is processed, and is ground up with the HogZillas. Trammell keeps track of the yardage coming in and going out, and estimates that the reduction is approximately 3:1. Ground vegetative material is then either hauled as biomass to cogeneration plants, or for mulch/compost for nearby sugar cane fields. Mecklenburg County, where the facility is located, doesn't allow burning, so all vegetative material must be ground and used. Last year, when there weren't very many storms the facility moved 6,000 tractor trailer loads of compostable material.

Trammell says that contamination of material has not been an issue, and credits this to strict building codes that apply to new structures, which require screws instead of nails and are rated to resist winds over 100 mph. “So, there's not much C&D in storm cleanup, unless it's a Category Five [hurricane],” he explains. “Usually it's just vegetative, branches and such, that are knocked loose in a storm.” A monitor fills out a ticket when the load is picked up, classifying the debris type. FEMA looks at the ticket, and if the load has any plastic or other contaminants, it is considered C&D and immediately separated from vegetative. “If mother nature is going to hit us with these disasters, we're going to need to figure out what to do so as to not waste those valuable resources,” says Trammell.

Boothbay Regional Refuse Disposal District, in Boothbay, Maine, was responsible for grinding 2,000 tons of wood waste in one month after a “nor'easter” storm swept through the state this past April. Steve Lewis, who manages the facility, describes how it took a month, with staff working overtime, to handle trees and limbs from the storm. All told, he estimates that 3,000 tons were ground, using a CBI 8400 Horizontal Hog.

As a municipal transfer station, the District services four towns. Public works, and some contracted companies, cleared the roads and brought brush to the transfer station, the only facility around that offers grinding services. At the facility, there is a large paved tipping pad, where brush was dumped in one area. C&D debris was unloaded in a separate area. Ground wood is sold for biomass to Boralex, a company based in Canada. Sometimes ground wood also is used as mulch. “There was too much material after the storm to stockpile, so we ended up moving it all as biomass,” says Lewis.

Kramer Tree Service has been in the tree trimming and tree removal business in the Chicago area for 33 years. The scope of its operations has changed over the years, broadening to include insect and disease control (see sidebar), cable bracing, fertilization and now storm debris cleanup. As the business grew, so did the need to manage the end products. At first tree limbs and trunks were turned into firewood, but this proved to be too costly in terms of labor and storage. The company settled on grinding materials into mulch, using a Vermeer HG 6000. Mulch is primarily sold to the landscape industry (although some is available retail and for delivery).

After a destructive summer storm that hit the Chicago area in August 2007, municipalities contacted Kramer Tree Service to process storm debris. The village of Mt. Prospect was hardest hit, losing thousands of trees, says Joe Kramer. “Much of the damage was caused by high, sustained winds,” he recalls. The grinder was soon at capacity, with 12 to 13 hours of operation a day, not including repairs and fueling. The company was able to rent a tub grinder from Vermeer to keep up with the flow of materials.

The initial stage of recovery was collection. Kramer Tree Service worked with six towns, which used grapple loaders to lift material off the streets and parkways. The city provided several sites, such as a closed factory parking lot, where brush, branches, logs and trunks were stockpiled. Collection took from one to three weeks, depending on the severity of a particular community's damage. The HG 6000 stayed in Kramer's yard, where it had nine crews, and took material from a centralized location. “We were still taking tress off of homes 10 days after the storm,” he says.
Materials were ground to 2-inch minus in one pass, both reducing volume and producing a quality landscape mulch. Although it was more expensive than simply doing volume reduction, the material wasn't wasted. “The biomass fuel market is an option in some areas of the country, but there is not much of a market around Chicago, and shipping materials is costly,” notes Kramer. This way, the mulch is available in the communities where the storm debris was ground.

Quality Environmental Solutions and Technologies (QEST), based in Breyton, Alabama, operates throughout the southeastern United States, primarily doing land clearing, grinding and wood waste recycling. The company also operates two green waste processing sites in Santa Rosa County and Pensacola, Florida. “We take in vegetative waste and grind it to meet the specs of the paper mill boilers that buy this material,” says Chris Collum, founder of QEST. While boiler fuel is the primary market for all of the wood waste it grinds, the company occasionally sells material for erosion control applications, primarily slope stabilization.

He adds that specifications for boiler fuel are fairly standard throughout the southeast region, with ground wood sized through a 4-inch minus grate. “Naturally, the facilities want the material as clean as possible,” says Collum. “We have a Titan 1800 portable screen plant on tracks that we run material through prior to grinding.” The company also owns two Morbark horizontal track-mounted grinders, as well as two Peterson track-mounted grinders.

QEST gets involved in storm debris cleanup, primarily as a subcontractor to companies that are prequalified by FEMA to bid on storm debris jobs. When called in for hurricane cleanup, the company manages operation of a processing site. Incoming debris is staged in block sections. “Essentially, the truck dumps a nice square of material and we segregate out the bigger stumps, and pile the rest in blocks to make it easy to load into the grinder without spending a lot of time,” Collum explains. “The stumps are run through a sheer to get the dirt off the root ball. Site staff is vigilant in keeping C&D debris out of these piles. Basically, we process what comes in, grind it once, and out it goes.”


THE EMERALD ash borer (EAB), an invasive beetle first identified in Michigan in 2002, has worked its way into several Midwestern states, and most recently has been found in some Northeast states. It has killed more than 20 million trees in North America since 2002. In Illinois, the EAB was discovered in June 2006 in rural Kane County, according to the Northwest Municipal Conference, an organization that assists local governments in Illinois. Subsequent detections were made in northern Cook County. A quarantine that prohibits the movement of potentially infested wood products, including all types of firewood, was put into effect to prevent the accidental spread of the beetle.

Wood recycling sites handling the diseased wood need to be certified, and follow specific processing guidelines. Kramer Tree Service in West Chicago, Illinois, is a certified ash borer disposal facility, approved by both the Illinois and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture. “The diseased wood needs to be ground to 1-inch minus, which apparently destroys the pest itself,” explains Joe Kramer. The heat generated in the mulch pile, if it reaches 60°C, is also thought to destroy the EAB, according to research conducted by Michigan State University and the USDA Forest Service.
Certified facilities are inspected to ensure that the diseased wood has been ground to the proper particle size. In Kramer's case, two people used sifters to check 20 samples each from random places in the ground wood piles. “It looked as if they were panning for gold,” he says. “They shook the samples through the sifters, and the material had to fall through in less than one minute. All of our samples passed.”

BioCycle has had several articles over the years on the EAB infestation and treatment of the diseased wood. See “Wood Recyclers Respond To Beetle Infestation” (July 2005); “Meet The Beetles” (April 2003); and “Battle of the Emerald Ash Borer” (April 2003).

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