Editor’s Note: David Burchfield is FAC Net’s newest staff member. In his role as Member Services Associate, David supports FAC Net members through training and learning opportunities. In this blog, David outlines different considerations to get a chipping program started in your community to reduce wildfire risk from excess vegetation.
As we say farewell to summer and winter settles in, and FAC practitioners start planning for next year, some of you may have chipping programs on your mind. Indeed, a chipping program is an important part of many fuels mitigation projects. To help you plan and dream, we have collected some insights from the field and a few practitioners to share here with you. This is hardly a comprehensive roundup, and it is not a prescriptive document as the thing that works best for you may be very different from some of your peers in the field.
When starting or revamping a chipping program, there are several things to consider, including assessing need, funding, staffing, outreach and marketing, chipper selection, access and functional needs, chip dispersal and use, and program improvement year over year. Let’s take a detailed look at each of these.
The first step in any new community-based program is to assess the need. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) recommends checking that residents have expressed interest (unprompted or not) before outlaying the resources to start a chipping program.This may be a good moment to check in with your community regarding their engagement with all forms of mitigation; are they doing other defensible space and home hardening projects? If not, there may be some work to do around engagement before launching into a chipping program. Residents are most likely to engage in new mitigation activities when they have the opportunity to interact face-to-face with trusted partners, so build those relationships and get out there!
Practitioners we interviewed have often found funding support for chipping programs from municipal/county grants, cost-share programs with homeowners and HOAs, and from within normal operating budgets. Wildfire Adapted Partnership (WAP) in SW Colorado used a cost-share program for many years with great results, even when it reduced its match by half due to a low funding year. WAP’s Ashley Downing found that “a very small amount of incentive can go a long way to changing peoples’ minds to do the work…If we can get them started with just a little bit of money, chances are they’re gonna do it again next year, or a little bit more every year.” Some community members may be very cost sensitive. As Laura Dyberg of the Mountain Rim Fire Safe Council (MRFSC), East of Los Angeles, found that residents balked at a new $25 fee to haul away chips, although residents could also have chips dispersed onsite for free, which helped overcome this cost concern somewhat.
A few network members and partners have found creative ways to reduce staffing demands for chipping programs. WAP’s program operates as a reimbursement for homeowner’s and HOA’s that rent a chipper from a local company and do the work themselves or hire a mitigation contractor to do the chipping with little need for oversight, which reduces staff needs significantly. Other programs have hired seasonal staff to run chipping operations. When it ran its own chipping program, the Santa Fe Fire Department (SFFD) hired 15 seasonal staff. (SFFD made an early transition to a green waste collection program with a grapple truck, and in more recent years has transferred this whole program to the city’s environmental services division – another handy hack for sharing the load with your partners if you can arrange something like this!). According to this training by the Tri-Lakes Emergency Preparedness Group (TLEPG) based in Colorado, they rent chippers themselves, with resident volunteers helping load the chipper (this requires a few staff or volunteer experts to provide safety training). MRFSC asks residents to leave prepared piles curbside for professional chipping contractors to handle on chip days, though they have found that residents often miss pile preparation guidelines (cut end direction, diameter) and may need extra reminders of this through various methods.
Outreach and Marketing
As with anything, the foundation of good outreach begins with existing relationships within your community (as was the case with the Elk Creek Fire Protection District). Whether this area is a strength for your organization or you have room for growth, view chipping as a great opportunity to engage with residents, getting to know them and sharing more about your work. This can yield a strong basis for outreach via email campaigns to existing community partners or participants in past chipping opportunities. Laura Dyberg of MRFSC notes that they do outreach through “Facebook and via our email contact list. We also use local newspapers, press releases and print ads.” Using a mix of passive advertising and face-to-face connection opportunities, Porfirio Chavarria of SFFD notes: “Our outreach consisted of Ready, Set, Go! booklets and Firewise materials. I would contact the HOAs, give presentations, and make residents aware of the program when conducting wildfire hazard assessments.”
When it comes to chipper selection, feedback was almost unanimously in line with Porfirio Chavarria’s thinking that “the best chipper is the one you don’t own. Storage, maintenance, breakdowns, keeping the knives sharp, are all reasons not to own a chipper.” Laura Dyberg agrees, adding that “other fire safe councils had acquired chippers in the past and two of three I am personally aware of have divested themselves of the equipment.” All that said, organizations that have access to a dedicated machine shop and storage may benefit from owning a chipper. Coalitions and Collaboratives, Inc. (COCO) has a great resource that details the various considerations when it comes to sorting out whether to buy or rent a chipper (and which kind), or whether to simply hire a contractor. As the TLEPG points out in various places in this webinar, renting or buying a chipper comes with the added risks and considerations of having staff or volunteers run this powerful, potentially dangerous, machinery. Chipping crews need to be trained on proper technique, provided with proper personal protective equipment, and properly rotated through rest to avoid accidents. Hiring a contractor covers all of these concerns, but comes with a higher price tag. If you do choose to rent or buy, make sure to follow COCO’s tips on ensuring that your chipper is in good working order with sharp blades before you get it into the field.
Access and Functional Needs
We found that in talking with practitioners, addressing access and functional needs issues was less seamlessly wrapped into chipping programs, but there are ways to include those in your community with special considerations. MRFSC made sure to include an option for expressing program interest over the phone for residents who didn’t have access to the internet. TLEPG mentions their moves to coordinate volunteers within neighborhoods to help prepare slash piles for residents who otherwise couldn’t do this on their own. Whatever the needs of residents in your service area, we encourage you to think about ways to be inclusive wherever possible.
Chips Dispersal and Use
What do we do with all these wood chips? This is a challenge felt throughout the field with limited solutions, but there are some helpful ideas that might move you in the right direction. The most obvious solution is to disperse chips right back onto the property where needed for water retention, erosion control, and landscaping. Feedback from interviews with members regarding depth varied, stating that chips should be dispersed somewhere between 2 and 4 inches deep. Chip layers that are too shallow will do little to retain water or control erosion, but layers too deep will not decompose and represent a fire hazard in their own right. Regardless, chips should be kept at least five feet away from structures to maintain defensible space. Adequately communicating this key point can be a challenge, as Bill Trimarco of WAP notes, saying, “Unfortunately, some homeowners keep their chips and use them as mulch within 5′ of structures, which basically just moves fuels closer to the home.”
Other uses for chips can include hauling chips back to waste transfer stations for mixing into municipal mulch, burn piles, sale to pellet energy producers, and surely other creative, though rarely used, options.
Practitioners had several key points when it came to tracking programmatic effectiveness and making improvements year over year. There are various methods for tracking the amount of fuel removed from the landscape. WAP uses shapefiles of properties to tally acres treated and identify ambassador communities who are likely to help drum up interest in future opportunities. This tracking also works well for WAP to report back to funders how far their dollars are going. WAP gave us some figures, stating they are “awarding $16k in grant funding resulted in cash match alone of $50k (from residents), and [we] treated 325 acres and we still had 1,400 impact hours…so it’s amazing how much [money] could get when you do it from this approach of having money going directly to residents.” SFFD tracked the amount of treated material in tons because it brought everything back to a transfer station. Mountain Rim Fire Safe Council has tried a number of formulas based in part on cubic yards, but acknowledges the limitations of this given that it re-disperses much of what it chips on site. The key point here is to get data on material mitigated, as well as matching funds and volunteer hours – this will help you make the case for more future funding to continue chipping.
IAFC also notes the importance of year-round engagement with stakeholders. Keeping the conversation going all year about resident-driven mitigation helps keep your relationships strong and growing, awareness keen, and builds momentum for future chipping opportunities.
However you do it, starting or improving a chipping program can be a worthwhile investment in not only landscape mitigation and defensible space, but also as a powerful opportunity to connect with your community at the neighborhood level. Download our easy-reference graphic for the steps to start a chipping program outlined in this post!