The Resource Conservation District (RCD) of Santa Cruz County got a jump start on a key piece of its forest health programs just a year after the worst fire on record in the county.
The RCD reached out to landowners in the wildland urban interface (WUI) to get involved in its No-Cost Chipping program this spring, a two-fold approach that reduces fuels and also promotes establishing defensible space around the home.
The RCD typically has performed the program in the fall when vegetation is drier, but after the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex Fire, staff worked to offer the program in the summer and get more people participating.
“Wildfire season is coming earlier and earlier and becoming longer and longer,” RCD Communications and Programs Specialist Angie Gruys said. “We have a pretty dense population in the wildland urban interface, so we’re reducing fuels in larger scales to create safe ingress and egress and prevent the forests from burning in such a destructive way.”
Last August, dry lightning caused the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex Fire, an intense, destructive event that burned about 90,000 acres of forest, including Redwoods, which typically are more resistant. Nearly 1,500 structures were destroyed and thousands of families displaced.
By chipping dead vegetation and understory instead of using burn piles, landowners reduce the opportunity for embers or sparks to spread with the wind and start wildfires. The program also makes it easier to educate landowners about maintaining a 100-foot defense around their residence and other structures.
The program, which offers no-cost chipping for residents who have cleared vegetation within 100 feet of residences or 10 feet on either side of a private road, is funded through monies from CalFire and the California Fire Safe Council. While there is a three-pile limit, the RCD has the ability to allow more based on circumstances, Gruys said. Chips are blown back onto the property for residents to use.
Historically, the RCD has had neighborhood representatives sign up residents who were interested, and the RCD would have contractors chip areas one section at a time. Gruys said that system proved more time consuming with about one-third of the wood piles set up incorrectly for chipping.
This year, the district had a two-part registration process, the first being an online registration form and the second a chipping schedule form to be completed once the materials are stacked and ready for chipping. Property owners link to the chipping program page, which details the chipping schedule, areas served, deadlines for applications and instructions for preparing materials for chipping.
“It’s really helped,” Gruys said. “This is the most we’ve done in one grouping. The Complex Fire really jolted people into action. Because of our fire situation and just what’s happening in general, the desire to do chipping is way up.
“There’s definitely much more interest in the program, but it also helps people know the broad brush of services we have available,” she said.
The district received $150,000 in grant money that is directly for chipping. Property owners contribute the required 50 percent in-kind contribution for the program by recording their time preparing the piles for chipping, Gruys said. This year, the district chipped just under 250 households; typically, the district would gather about 100 forms from residents interested in chipping.
With the success and the demand, the RCD is exploring having a fall chipping program as well.
“There’s a higher sense of awareness,” she said. “The program really pushes people to become fire safe.”