Forestry Friday … Masticator

What’s a masticator? Think of it as a big mobile wood chipper, or a mower on steroids. You may have seen these machines grinding up brush on the side of the road. They’re also used in forestry applications.

I came across a brush clearing operation on the neighbor’s property. Our neighbors happen to be a large government agency. They were shut down because a much needed rain storm made the woods too wet for operating. They were thinning a thirty plus year old Ponderosa pine plantation and removing competing brush with masticators. The thinned trees weren’t big enough to harvest for sawlogs. Masticating an area is expensive, but it makes the plantation more fire resistant and spaces out the residual trees for better growth.

Farther down the road, they used masticators to create a fuelbreak. This provides a break in heavy fuels giving firefighters a defensible line to make a stand against an oncoming wildfire. Shredded and crushed wood from the masticated brush is left on the ground. This woody debris still burns, but the flame lengths and rate of spread of a fire are reduced, thus making it manageable for a fire crew. It’s also a location that a fire crew can use for backfire operations. Over time, this material will decompose, further lessening the fire risk.

The current fuelbreak was originally cleared as a firebreak during the Finley Fire in 1990. A fuelbreak is a change from a heavy fuel type, such as brush, to a lighter fuel type like grass. A firebreak is the removal of all fuel down to bare dirt.  After the fire, we replanted our section of the same fireline in 1992. Our trees are now twenty-two years old. As these trees grow larger, they’ll be developed into a shaded fuelbreak. A shaded fuelbreak utilizes the shade of trees to suppress the growth of underbrush. This keeps fuels on the forest floor light. Pruning trees creates a break in the vertical fuel ladder reducing the chance that a ground fire becomes a crown fire.

The neighbors didn’t replant trees in the firebreak immediately after the fire. While our section of the fireline grew trees, their section grew brush. Our stand of trees is twenty years along the process of becoming a shaded fuelbreak. The neighbors must continue to retreat the brush to maintain their section of the fuelbreak.

Forestry is a process with a long planning horizon. I commend the neighbors for creating the fuelbreak. This treatment also benefits our property. However, by making the investment in planting trees early, we saved money on brush removal, while accelerating forest restoration at this site.

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