Fuel Reduction for Wildfire Prevention: How Cypress Fire Protection District/CAL FIRE is using the RCU-75 to protect the people of California

Cypress Fire Protection District, formed in 1993, is a proactive, progressive fire department providing a high level of service and protection to our community. The District contracts out staffing with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) in the San Benito - Monterey Unit. Through this agreement, they provide fire protection and emergency paramedic medical services to approximately 7,600 people throughout 11 square miles within the mouth of the Carmel Valley, and unincorporated portions of Carmel and Monterey. CAL FIRE has greatly evolved from the creation of the State Board of Forestry in 1885 providing primarily wildland fire protection to its current All Risk Fire Department, responding to over 500,000 calls for emergencies each year through contracts such as this one with Cypress FPD.

Cypress FPD has recently purchased an RCU-75 to assist in its fuel reduction efforts. I spoke with CAL FIRE Fire Captain Greg Leonard, who works in the Cypress FPD Fuels Management Program, to learn more. 

I began by asking Greg about his background. He said:

I started in 2004 as a Firefighter. Most of our folks start on the wildland side of the house, going up and down the state, responding to wildland fires. One of the great things about our department is the number of opportunities and programs we have.

I did the wildland assignment for about 12 or 13 years, and then I moved over to another one of our CAL FIRE contracts with the Aromas Tri County FPD focusing more on structural fire and medical response type emergencies. After a promotion, I went into our Command Center, learning how 911 calls get processed and ensuring emergencies get the appropriate response, all while moving resources around preparing for the next emergency. It is sort of like playing chess with fire engines and bulldozers. The opportunity came to join our Peninsula Battalion Fuels Management Team and I took it.

He described some of the changes that they were seeing.

About 10 years ago, we started to hear a pretty significant shift in the verbiage we were hearing on the radio and in basecamp on these large fires. We started hearing things like, ‘we have never seen fire behavior like this before’, ‘whole communities are being threatened’, ‘the timber is burning as fast as the grass usually does’ and this was coming from some of our very seasoned, operationally respected, experienced folks… Dating back to the early days, we have always had fires and, unfortunately, fatalities associated with them, but up until maybe the last 10 years or so, we never saw the large level community devastation that we’re starting to see now. So we’re looking at why these fires are happening and what we can do to prevent more of them.

I asked Greg what was causing these changes.

It is probably a combination of things. Everybody wants to be a little bit more remote from town. We are starting to see a population in places in the landscape where we never had homes before. Often fires burn in the same area or footprint every so many years. In this periodic fire interval while fires are still dangerous and can be damaging, it can also be good in that it is reducing the amount of old growth fuel loading which burns extremely hot, fast and can be difficult to suppress. When we have fires in areas with no fire history for the last 30, 50, 100 years, it can be a bad situation.

I then asked how the department was adjusting to meet these new challenges.

The WUI, what we call the wildland-urban interface, where homes meet unpopulated landscape, is getting deeper and deeper, so one of the things that we do in the Cypress Fire Protection District, which is a little over 7000 acres, about 11 square miles of wildland-urban interface, is develop a system of fire roads and fuel breaks, close to 30 miles now, that we inspect every year. 

Every year, we maintain existing fire roads and fuel breaks and look at areas where we need to potentially add more. Essentially, they help us get closer to a remote fire that has the potential to become an extended attack fire. To be deemed a Fire Road, we maintain a travelable road bed by reducing the amount of vegetation on both sides as well as above. They are secured with gates with Fire Dept locks and identified with a Fire Road Post Indicator and associated number. Our Command Center has these roads and treated areas in their Computer Aided Dispatch System or CAD, so instead of trying to explain where a fire is to resources who may or may not be familiar with the area using local landmarks, we can say ‘access through Fire Road 100.’ These fire roads and fuel breaks also help the residents get out and First Responders get in to the area, even under fire conditions. Fire burning in masticated areas or short grass puts off much less heat then if brush is burning right next to your car window.

He described the reasoning behind the purchase of the RCU-75.

Previously, before deciding to purchase our own, we contracted all of our work out.

The vendors out there that we use do a great job and, with that, are often booked out in advance. Like everything in the world, the cost is going up. We are very fortunate to have a supportive Fire Board of Directors who have taken the initiative to be proactive and prioritize Fuel Reduction, so we started entertaining the idea of doing our own in-house mechanical fuel reduction.

We were able to test drive a remote control masticator for about 200 hours… We liked the general concept of it. There were a lot of things we liked…

[As for] the [competitor] model that we were using [initially], there were some things we didn't like, but it was the only one we knew about at the time. So we proposed to the fire board that [acquiring] a resource of our own… was worthwhile. They approved our proposition to purchase, and now we have our own with a Cypress Patch next to the FAE logo conducting fuel reduction all across our District.

Part of the reason we chose to go the remote control route was because we're not sitting in a cab. Whenever we put our employees in the cab, it requires extra training. Sometimes, when you get into the skid steer model, all of a sudden you need a bigger truck with a bigger trailer with more training standards for the department. We were trying to keep it simple yet efficient, which is why we like the RCU.

Because the training provided [by] FAE and Global Machinery gave us a good basis [for making decisions and for effective operation], we can hook it up to one of our normal work trucks with a normal trailer and go do a project [at any time]. So the [convenience] and minimal training to get operational use out of it was primarily why we went with the remote control masticators.

Greg described his experience meeting with Global Machinery and seeing the RCU-75 in action.

We liked what we saw in the machine. We liked what we were hearing from the sales team, so the machine stayed with us after our demo day.

[With the machines we had previously tested] the general maintenance things that [we needed to access] on a daily basis, the air filter [for example], was really hard to get to. [There also was] kind of a weak hinge point. 

[So we were] glad to see that the air filter [of the RCU-75] is easy to get to. The fluids are easy to get to. Everything you're going to [need to access] daily is easy to get to, so that was probably the big difference between the two.

He commented on the ease of transportation offered by the compact RCU system.

A lot of the areas we're trying to get to to do our fuel treatments are narrow, windy roads going through our fire district, so it wouldn't be practical for us to get a lowboy and a semi into these places. The fact that we can use the somewhat regular truck and trailer helps with the challenges to get into these places.

He described a recent project that he was particularly proud of.

We just did a project around 2 senior assisted living communities, and there was a pretty thick, probably 5 to 10 foot, wall of brush all the way from the road uphill leading into the parking lot of these facilities. We found some old dirt roads around them that [had not been maintained], and we were able to use remote control masticators [to clean them up].

Essentially, we made a 100-foot-wide fuel break over 2 1/2 miles around these two assisted living communities, and we cleared over 25 acres of brush. It's a good feeling when we get in there and do that because we think about [the potential of] a fire [in] this particular area [with] all of our possible ignition features. It had a well-traveled roadway below it. We had utilities in the utility lines in the area. We had hiking and biking trails in the area, so the potential for a fire was a real concern with the fuels that were there. 

I envisioned what the first engine in would say when they got on scene for their report on conditions and it might sound like, ‘a vehicle fire spread to the vegetation with 10 to 15-foot flame lengths coming off old growth brush with a dangerous rate of spread moving towards an assisted living community.’ Where now, knowing that we put a 2 1/2 mile, 100 foot wide, fuel break around these facilities, [we would hope] to hear that first engine company get there and say, ‘Yeah, there's a vehicle fire. It's spread to the vegetation. It's burning in a previously masticated area, one-to-two-foot flame lengths. Slow rate of spread.’

He continued.

Those facilities are not practical to evacuate. We have a lot of non-ambulatory patients who are not going to be able to get out of their rooms by themselves. They're not going to be able to get to their cars and drive away by themselves. If we've done our fuel treatments around it, the better option is shelter in place. Keep everybody inside their room because [we know that] we've done our job decreasing the anticipated fire behavior around that facility. Even though there may never be a fire there, if there is a fire there and our pre-work has made it easier on the crews to get in there and do good work, it's a good feeling for the fuel reduction Team.

I asked how they determine where they’ll do their mastication work on a regular basis.

Since we have close to 30 miles of fire roads and fuel breaks, the [procedure] is… generally [to first enter with] our heavier equipment. We might in the past have had skid steers or mini excavators in there. Now we're able to use our own RCU to go in and remove a lot of the brush.

After that, [the goal on subsequent entries is to see] less and less [growth] each time. Where we masticated before, now we're down maybe to a light mowing or possibly conducting a prescribed fire since the grass doesn’t generally present the fire control issues of tall thick brush and ladder fuels getting into the tree canopy. After that, maybe it's something we can turn over to goats or cows to do grazing. So it's all a big cycle of ‘start with the big lift in the beginning and [then] switch to lesser impact models’ because we’ve helped restore the landscape from old growth brush that's taken over, getting back to our native annual grasses and forages out there for all the animals.

The bad combination for us in the fire world is when we have wind aligned with slope in heavy fuel loaded canyons or drainages. Being right next to the ocean, we can have a lot of on and offshore wind events that come through. When we have the winds that are aligned with the slope, we know the wind is really going to funnel through there in the afternoons and if they're loaded full of brush, that's a bad combination. We identify those drainages, especially if they're in the areas of homes, and we go in there and reduce the fuel/vegetation that’s causing the fire spread.

If we do get a fire on one of those hot, dry days after several days of lower relative humidities in one of those [wind-aligned] canyons but we have done some fuel reduction and vegetation management in the area, we can keep the fire on the ground. [If we can keep it on the ground], we can get in there with hose lines and hand tools as opposed to a fire burning in an established brush field that gets up into the trees, [requiring] bulldozers and aircraft because there's too much heat coming off the old growth fuel.

 Wildfire prevention with Cypress Fire Protection District and the RCU75

Lastly, Greg reiterated that CAL FIRE’s mission consists of serving and safeguarding the people and protecting the property and resources of the State of California.
With the increase in wildfires in the region, the necessity for fuel reduction and fire break production in California will only grow. And, with the RCU-75 at their disposal, Cypress FPD and CAL FIRE’s work protecting the people of California is sure to be more effective and efficient than ever. 

Learn more: RCU-75

Learn more about Cal Fire: