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Brush-thinning machines give landowners an early start on fire prevention

As the two monstrous machines growled their way up the hill, gobbling brush and spitting out wood chips, rancher J.B. Roberts was mightily impressed.

Hand piling is so slow and costly, he observed as he watched the proceedings with his dog, Pard. But these machines, they move right through that brush.

Roberts is one of the Sterling Creek area residents taking advantage of a joint fire hazard reduction program offered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Work began on thinning dense brush on some 27 acres of his ranch.

Known as Slashbusters, the two machines owned by John Brown of Klamath Falls already had been contracted to thin brush on some 420 acres of adjacent BLM forestland.

Under funding from the National Fire Plan, the agencies are offering a cost-share program for the machines to cross property lines and thin brush on private land, explained Travis Ryan, a forest officer with the ODF.

The cost for a Slashbuster is &

36;412 per acre, but under the cost-sharing program, National Fire Plan funds pay for &

36;330 an acre, leaving just &

36;82 per acre to be paid by the private property owner, Ryan said.

To keep the fire danger down, we gotta go in and do something a little dramatic now, Roberts said. With the cost-share grants, it's affordable to do it.

The Sterling Creek area, which was threatened by last year's 6,000-acre Squires Peak fire, was identified as a priority for treatment in the Applegate Fire Plan, Ryan said.

The skeletal remains of trees burned by that fire can be seen on the ridge overlooking Roberts' ranch.

The breaks created in continuous brushfields rob wildfires of the fuel they need to maintain a rapid spread, Ryan observed.

The tracked machines chip the brush, then scatter the chips to serve as a forest mulch. The machines look like excavators with a 4-foot-diameter Slashbuster cutting disk mounted at the end of their mechanical arms.

In an area like this, where you would otherwise get 4- or 5-foot flame lengths, when we are done, you may get flame lengths a foot high if there is a fire, said Luis Ramirez, operational forester for the BLM's Ashland Resource Area.

This will reduce the fire hazard, he added. We won't get the crowning fires.

A fire crawling along on the forest floor does little harm, while a fire racing through the canopy can be devastating, according to fire experts.

The BLM plans to use the machines to reduce the brush on about 420 acres adjacent to the Roberts ranch, Ramirez said.

working with the private landowners in the same area, it keeps the cost down, Ramirez said. We try to make it into one project.

Although fire hazard reduction is a main concern, the agency is also trying to tread lightly on the ground, particularly when it concerns sensitive plants and animals, he said.

Depending on the terrain and the material, one of the machines can thin up to a half-acre in an hour, said contractor and machine owner John Brown.

Basically, it reduces those fuels down to ground level, Brown said. Instead of a 12-foot-high wall of brush and scrub trees, it reduces it to a layer of mulch 4 or 5 inches deep.

That sounds good to Roberts, who is retired. He and his wife bought the 160-acre parcel in the late 1980s and have been spending much of their time clearing brush.

The parcel, surrounded by BLM forestland, was homesteaded in 1857, Roberts said.

We've been working since we got here to knock the brush down and thin the timber so it's not so dense, he said. You gotta do it to make it safe.

It goes with living out here, he added with a shrug. If you get too nervous about things like fires, then you oughta go live in a condo.

For information

Any rural resident interested in the cost-sharing, joint fire hazard reduction program or any aspect of reducing the threat of a wildfire is encouraged to contact the Oregon Department of Forestry office in Central Point at 664-3328.

Equipment operator John Brown runs the Slashbuster across property owned by J.B. Roberts in the Sterling Creek area. The machines, which reduce brush to mulch, can thin up to a half-acre in an hour. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell