USA — With a steady rain falling, it didn’t feel or look like fire season, but that wasn’t slowing a hard-chomping Gyro-Trac mulching machine Tuesday as it gnawed through a thick understory of trees lining an emergency evacuation route from Northwood University.
Up the narrow dirt road where the terrain got too steep for the treaded machine to navigate, a dripping-wet crew of Texas A&M Forest Service firefighters was using chainsaws to thin the thick curtain of trees along the narrow lane.
The goal was to a create a shaded fuel break along 3.5 miles of roadway that will help slow a wildfire by reducing, but not eliminating, the forest canopy, keeping a blaze from spreading into treetops and then barreling across the forest.
“It changes a fire’s intensity. It won’t stop it, but it will slow it down,” said Richard Gray, a fuel coordination specialist with the forest service who was supervising the cooperative project designed to help communities such as Cedar Hill mitigate wildfire dangers.
In the wake of the hellish 2011 fire season, when nearly 4 million acres of Texas went up in smoke, the forest service, cities and institutions such as Northwood have become more proactive about curbing fire danger, Gray said.
“We’re teaching people how to deal with wildfire dangers. After the last couple of years, folks are on board,” he said, noting that similar projects are now under way in East Texas, Houston and the Davis Mountains of West Texas.
Cedar Hill is only about 16 miles south of Dallas, but the rugged and heavily forested terrain on the east side of Joe Pool Lake is more like an outpost of the Texas Hill Country than a Metroplex bedroom community.
It’s also a perfect example of the wildland urban interface, where the woods meet the city, said Nick Harrison, a wildland urban interface forester with the A&M Forest Service.
For firefighters, the urban interface zone represents a doubling down on danger. A blaze becomes more than a wildfire; it can quickly morph into a neighborhood nightmare like the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colo., which destroyed nearly 400 homes last summer.
“We have unique terrain; we are different from other towns around Dallas-Fort Worth,” said Don Ballard, Cedar Hill’s fire chief.
Tall bluffs and deep ravines finger into the lake, creating a scenic but inaccessible landscape for fire crews. Increasing the danger is the addition of high-dollar developments smack dab in the forest, Ballard said.
The mulching machine is something of an equalizer in wildfire mitigation. It can chew through a 6-inch diameter tree in just seconds, leaving behind a carpet of wood chips.
In just two hours, the machine can rip through an area that would take a 10-person crew a day to clear, said Gray, noting that the state bought two of the $140,000 machines to help clean up after Hurricane Ike, which battered Southeast Texas in 2008.
Across Texas, 50 communities such as Cedar Hill, population 46,000, have developed community wildfire protection plans to identify risks and devise ways to combat them, Harrison said.
Over the next three months, the Forest Service crews will work for about 21 days, thinning an area around Cedar Hill’s Valley Ridge Park and creating defensible space around a dormitory at Northwood, a private business college with nearly 800 students.
“It’s a win-win situation for us,” said Michael Anguiano, dean of students at Northwood, which sits on a heavily wooded 300-acre campus. “It’s a way for us to partner with the city and protect our campus.”
All told, about 25 acres around Cedar Hill will be thinned at a cost of only about $300 an acre, said Harrison
“To a large degree, this is a demonstration project that will give homeowners or homeowners associations an idea of what they can do themselves,” he said. “We’re trying to educate people about wildfire risks around their communities or homes. It doesn’t have to happen overnight; it can happen over time.”
Ballard is fully aware of the unique wildfire dangers in Cedar Hill.
As he drives through a well-tended suburban neighborhood, he points toward the backdrop of a steep ridge thickly crowned with trees
“This is where you make a phone call and ask for state assistance. We couldn’t fight a wildfire in here. We couldn’t even get equipment in there,” Ballard said.
“It’s a double-edged sword. What makes this area so attractive is what makes it dangerous.”