Contractor Finds Opportunity in Fire Hazard

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Rayco forestry mower mini-crawler used to reduce risk near homes, provides environmental benefits.

PIONEER, California B Life in the Sierra Mountains is good. With a hot desert on the eastern base of the area to a high arctic-alpine climate on the mountain peaks, there’s something there for everyone. The overall Mediterranean-like climate below about 7,000 feet offers people who live there cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers.
But along with those warm dry summers comes the danger of wildfire. In the central California Sierras, a carelessly discarded cigarette can set a fire that scorches hundreds or even thousands of acres, devastating everything in its path.

For one man with a sense of enterprise and a commitment to environmental values, that danger has created an opportunity for a unique family business that protects homes and property in this fire-prone habitat — in a way that improves the environment at the same time.

Bob Fine owns and operates Fine’s Tractor Service in Pioneer. The company offers land clearing service with a particular goal in mind.

“We reduce underbrush, fuels and fire hazard,” Bob said. “We also do structure protection. We clear land for private homeowners, for new construction and for existing houses where brush has grown up over the years.”

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The service does not include only the tasks that can be performed by a tractor. Bob and his crew remove any brush that represents a fire hazard, trims up the trees, and basically removes anything that would fuel a wildfire.

“We take brush that you can’t even walk through, where people can’t even locate the corners of their property,” Bob said. “When we get done you can walk through the area like it’s a park. That’s what we try to do every time.”

“When we get rid of the ladder fuels underneath the tree, any fire will stay on the ground underneath the tree and not start crowning,” Bob noted. With those issues addressed, homeowners may be able to get homeowner’s insurance more easily than they could before.

Removing the fuel load from the land does more than just protect buildings from the risk of forest fire, Bob added. “What we do also provides watershed protection and timber protection.”

Using a Rayco7 Manufacturing C85FM (Forestry Mower) Mini Crawler, Bob and his team use a process he calls “mastication” to remove underbrush.

“We grind it and mat it down on the ground,” he said. “This creates an anti-erosion mat that prevents water run-off problems.” Reducing run-off conserves and protects water quality.

Treating land with the Rayco C85 Forestry Mower Mini Crawler is much more environmentally-friendly compared to bulldozing land clean and piling brush for burning, he added.

“Piling and burning the material creates air quality problems,” Bob said. “The air quality in this area is such that soon there won’t be any burning outside allowed. You know how everybody used to have burn barrels, and you’d burn your paper trash? After next year, we won’t be able to do that any more.”

Homeowners and contractors who clear brush and want to burn it or set controlled fires have increasingly narrow windows of opportunity to do so. On days that the California Division of Forestry says the air is still enough and the humidity is high enough for burning, the Air Quality Control Board says the air is too stagnant to allow it. “It’s getting real difficult to try to burn debris,” Bob said.

The masticated material breaks down and rots relatively quickly, returning nutrients to the soil. “It’s just a lot better than just scraping everything off and stripping the area down to bare dirt,” Bob said. “What we’re doing helps out in a lot of different ways.”

When Bob started Fine’s Tractor Service, he already had experience working in the woods. “I worked for the state of California and also for a couple of logging companies,” he said. “So I’ve been in the woods for a long time.”

By the late 1970s he wanted to go out on his own, so he decided to start a company that provided land clearing services and bought a small tractor. He also began buying small tracts of land. “I’d go in and clean up the property and then re-sell it,” he said. Nearby residents took notice of the work that he did and started asking him to clear brushy vegetation from around their houses. “People kept asking, ‘Hey, can you come over here and do mine?’ ” Bob said. “It started becoming more of a business.”

As the company grew, Bob needed help. First his daughter, Sarah, now 21, came into the business. Her brother, Dan, now 17, followed her.

For a number of years, Bob and his teen-aged children did land clearing the old-fashioned way: cutting brush and trees by hand, piling it up, and burning it. However, the more he considered these methods and the air and water quality issues, the more he thought there must be a better way.

“I live in the El Dorado National Forest,” said Bob. “They do some programs that try to reduce the threat of wildlife fires and improve logging cleanup, and stuff like that. I always enjoyed the forest and wanted to preserve it as best we can and make it as healthy as we can.”

Bob started looking at alternatives to piling and burning. AWe looked at tub grinders to try to grind the material and load it into trucks, but the grinding market doesn’t pay enough to make that economically feasible,” he said. “By the time you get a grinder and a loader and trucks, the rate on the tonnage wouldn’t be enough to pay for the trucking. And that doesn’t do anything to take care of the erosion problem.”

Then Bob got the idea of putting a Finnish-manufactured universal crusher head on a tractor to let him clear brush by masticating it. “That combination performed fairly well,” Bob said. “But I had too much trouble with the tractor, so I still was looking for an alternative method.” When the tractor broke down a year or so ago, he needed to find another piece of equipment.

“I had all these customers that I needed to take care of,” he said. “I had to find a dependable, reliable machine. There aren’t very many tractors out there that will do this kind of work.”

Bob went to his John Deere dealership and saw a Rayco C85 Forestry Mower Mini Crawler. “We didn’t have to modify anything on it,” he said. He bought the machine and headed back to the woods with it. The result was what he’d been looking for.

“With the process that we’re doing now, leaving a mat on the ground, we’re creating erosion control and soil stabilization,” Bob said. “We’re not sure yet about regrowth because we haven’t been doing it long enough to know. We don’t know whether the mat on the ground will keep some of the regrowth from sprouting. We just haven’t been out there long enough to go back to see yet. But as far as we can tell now, we’re going to have less regrowth than with the old method of pushing and piling, because we not disturbing the soil so much.”

The Rayco C85 Forestry Mower Mini Crawler features a fixed tooth cutter head to provide maximum tooth life and easy replacement. The drum-style cutter head, which can mulch trees and underbrush up to 4 inches in diameter, projects material down, reducing the risk of flying debris. It has a cutting width of 52 inches.

The Rayco C85FM Mini-Crawler is powered by a 82 hp Deutz diesel engine. The machine is easily operated by joystick controls and with excellent visibility of its cab-forward design.

Optional equipment includes winch, skidder winch, cab enclosure, cab heater, dozer blade and ripper.

The compact machine weighs only 12,000 pounds and can be carried on most trailers behind a 1-ton pick-up truck.

Rayco7 Manufacturing offers additional models of its Mini-Crawler as well as a complete line of high performance stump cutters and site preparation equipment.

In the year since he purchased the Rayco machine, Bob has been impressed with the way it’s done what he’s asked of it. “It’s been phenomenal,” he said. “We’re able to work in wet conditions in the rain without any ground disturbance because we’re working on top of the mat. The machine also has a winch on the back, so we can winch over trees that are leaning over houses or into power lines.”

The cutting equipment is located in the front of the Rayco machine. “The drum rotates in a horizontal position and uses the ground for an anvil,” said Bob. “So the debris goes forward. There’s also a door on the box that directs material right toward the ground.@ The design makes the machine safe to use in residential areas, he noted.

“Once we’re done, you can till the area and you’re ready to plant a garden,” Bob said. “People love it. We haven’t had one complaint about anything. The only complaint I get is, ‘When are you going to be here?’ ”

Bob has been favorably impressed with the support he has received from Rayco. “At first we had a problem with debris — leaves and little sticks — getting in the engine compartment,” he said. “I called the company and told them we had the problem, and within a week they had a modification for the hood sent out. We installed it, and it solved the problems we were having.”

Because the nearest Rayco dealer is two states away in Washington, Bob and his employees maintain the machine.

“We’re working directly with Rayco, and we’ll be doing all the repairs necessary ourselves,” Bob said. “I don’t foresee too many problems with the machine.” In the event of trouble, Rayco has made manuals and specifications available to Bob, so he has all the information he needs.

“Rayco is interested in what we’re doing, and they want us to be successful so they’re successful,” he said. “Rayco is a family-owned business, also. They have a really good company culture, where everybody is equal. If the guy pushing the broom to clean the floor has an idea for making something better, he can go right to the engineers and talk to them about it.”

Bob’s Tractor Service has continued to grow. Bob entered into a partnership with John and Mary Kearns, and they recently incorporated the business.

“Both their sons, Casey and Jake, are working for us,” Bob said. “Everybody does everything. We have a spotter on the ground with radio communications to the equipment operator. The spotter is looking for hazards such as mine shafts, wire, and rocks. The spotter also keeps spectators away from the machine.”

Bob and his employees often are called on to remove trees that are larger than the Rayco Forestry Mower will grind. “If it’s firewood size, we cut it up, stack it by the base of a big tree, and leave it for the homeowner,” he said. “We also take out hazard trees. Sometimes some big trees come out. What we do with them depends on what the landowner wants. If they want the wood, we just cut it and leave it for them.”

If a landowner wants wood removed, Fine’s Tractor Service will soon have an alternative other than calling someone to come get it. The company is about to invest in a Rayco C85L Mini-Crawler that will allow the crew to load the wood and take it off the property. “Some of that wood will go to the sawmill,” Bob said. “The rest will be for firewood.”

Bob and his partners expect the Rayco Mini-Crawler to enhance the company’s ability to do more work, more efficiently than they can now. “This piece of equipment will allow us to load material,” he said. “It also has a grinder head on it, so it will be a mulcher as well. It will allow us to do a lot more things as far as cleanup goes.”

As the company has grown, so has the size of the jobs that Fine’s Tractor Service can handle. “We’re doing everything from a quarter of an acre to right now we’re working on a 500-acre parcel,” Bob said. “This new machine has street pads on it, so we can use it in residential areas to do small lots. I don’t want to ever tell anybody they don’t have enough work for us. I want to be sure we can take care of the small customers as well as the large customers.”

Two goals for the company are to focus primarily on land clearing and fuel reduction, and to be able to get to each customer in a timely manner. AWhen somebody calls me and wants their land cleared, I want to be able to tell them I’m going to be there in less than three weeks,” he said. “So I want to add machines to our company to ensure that we can keep within that time frame.”

Bob also wants to create a lasting business for his children and the Kearns children.

“In these days, in the corporate giant world, there’s not very much left in the way of family business any more,” he said. “It gives me great satisfaction to be able to generate a business with a future for the kids. It’s rewarding to have my family working for me. The kids enjoy it, and when we get done at the end of the day, we can see what we’ve accomplished. It’s rewarding to know that we may have been able to protect someone’s property.”