Niche business handles fire aftermath

Fires that engulfed the Pine Ridge in 2012 left behind charred trees, and for many homeowners, the work of bringing down those damaged trees has been out of reach.

The Nebraska Forest Service has worked since 2012 to find markets for the deadfall or innovative ways to utilize the product. From large scale chipping to post-peeling, the agency has done demonstrations with the hope that an idea would spark.

This month, a niche business started work in Dawes County at Chad and Amy Halverson’s home near Chadron State Park. Red Top Forestry, owned by Grant Gifford of Laramie, Wyo., operates a small chipper, capable of chipping damaged or green trees on smaller parcels where traditional, large logging equipment can’t operate economically.

This is a tool for unique situations around home sites or small parcels where that equipment doesn’t fit or where cutting and piling the downfall in slash piles isn’t desirable, said Fred McCartney, a forester with the Nebraska Forest Service.

Gifford hand-fells the trees, runs them through his chipper and disperses the product back onto the ground.

“It works really well where there’s not room for brush piles,” McCartney said. “We’ve been trying for years to try and figure out how to address these small parcels in the wildland-urban interface.”

He’s excited that ideas have finally evolved to the point of having a contractor on the ground.

In addition to dealing with dangerous burned trees, the chipper can be used on green trees to strengthen the fuel break around home sites.

Gifford worked for the Forest Service fighting fires for four seasons, learning to run a saw and about defensible space. He then went to work for the company that demonstrated chipping in Dawes County in the aftermath of the 2012 fires before starting his own business. It’s a niche market that provides lower-cost, low-impact alternatives for homeowners to deal with fire-damaged trees or for fire mitigation, he said.

There are few limitations for the equipment – the size of the tree and the steepness of the terrain the only two, Grant said. A winch pulls the trees up to the machine, so the terrain can be easily overcome. The smaller equipment has a lighter footprint, and the trees are chipped over the tracks it does leave, returning nutrients to the soil.

The chipping changes the nature of the fuel to a less volatile status, McCartney said. Grant agreed, saying that a fire in wood chips will be a slow, creeping one. That’s easier for firefighters to handle than 50 trees burning rapidly on a hill.

Mobilization of traditional equipment is cost-prohibitive in many cases, McCartney said.

“You have to pay for that mobilization with acres. It gets prohibitive with smaller projects,” he said. Services like Red Top Forestry, combined with the Nebraska Forest Service’s cost-share programs for fuel mitigation, creates an alternative for many homeowners, he concluded.