Cutting edge technology being used to manage wildfire threats

CASTRO VALLEY – It’s been a relatively calm fire season in the Bay Area, but forest managers aren’t breathing a sigh of relief quite yet. They know the potential for disaster is still there. And the East Bay Regional Parks District offered a tour on Tuesday to show off the remarkable machines they’re using to lessen the danger.

The East Bay Regional Park District is the largest in the nation, with more than 125,000 acres backing up to many Bay Area cities. So, managers were alarmed when, in 2020, they noticed a huge die-off of trees in the forest.

“We realized that we had, basically, an emergency–a public safety emergency–because we had dead and dying trees, all due to climate change, that we had to deal with,” said district Fire Chief Aileen Theile. “We had to start thinking outside the box and thinking of new and innovative ways to be able to process that.”

The result is a massive fuel reduction project, now ongoing, in Anthony Chabot Regional Park. 365 acres of Eucaluptus forest is being thinned out.

“We’re spacing out and leaving the larger trees, taking out the vast majority of these smaller trees,” said Fuel Reduction Coordinator, Pablo Cepero. “They present far more fire risk than the larger trees.”

To do that, they employ a state-of-the-art machine called a “Harvester.” Even on steep hillsides, the tractor uses a boom to grab on to smaller trees, slicing them off at the base, stripping all the foliage off and snipping it into uniform sized logs, all in one operation. Then comes another tractor called the “Forwarder,” which picks up the stripped logs, and loads them into a rear compartment for transport down to a staging area, where they are stacked into huge piles. The two machines work in tandem and automatically keep track of what has been removed.

“It takes it down, moves it through the feeders. It’s scaling it, getting the volume of that tree, so then you can get the tonnage, which feeds into the overall project,” said district Fire Captain, Patrick McIntyre. “We know how much tonnage and volume is there, based on what was removed from the field.”

But it doesn’t stop there. After thinning, the forest floor is covered with leaves, branches and smaller debris. So, in comes a machine on treads called the “Masticator.” Hundreds of carbide teeth chew up the material, creating a light, shredded mulch that makes the forest floor look clean and tidy.

“Something that will probably break down in time a lot faster than wood chips,” said McIntryre. “And it really does leave us with a nice, you know, beautiful end product.”

But, finally, what to do with the thousands of tons of Eucalyptus trunks, which are not suitable for lumber? It’s unfeasible to truck it to the nearest co-generation energy plant near Sacramento, so the district has brought in “The Carbonator,” a huge mobile incinerator, called an air curtain burner, that shoots air down into the burn chamber. At nearly 1,500 degrees, it burns so completely that even smoke cannot escape. It leaves only a light carbon product known as “biochar” that has value as a soil amendment for farms and areas experiencing landslides.

“The scale of the project is massive,” said Fire Chief Theile. “And we hope that our successes and the things we learn will help embolden our community and really pave the way for other government agencies to follow in our footsteps.”

The East Bay Parks project is being funded by a $10 million direct appropriation from the State budget to develop long-term solutions to wildfire, using sustainable tools. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the need to prevent more disasters is giving birth to innovation in forest management. And the East Bay Regional Parks District hopes it can inspire others to “think outside the box.”

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