MERRILL, Oregon – A versatile company needs versatile equipment. Multifaceted Lost River Fire Management Services Inc. found a match in Ponsse harvesters and forwarders.
Why Ponsse? Start with the ease with which its eight-wheeled Ponsse Ergo and Ponsse Buffalo Dual machines can switch easily between “brute force” and “finesse” – as noted on the Lost River website.
Lost River is engaged in “forest management that specializes in wildfire, prescribed fire, and hazardous fuels treatments,” said Claren Nilsson, owner with her husband, Winston. The company, established in 1995 and based in Oregon, performs forest management services primarily in steep slopes of the Pacific Northwest.
Lost River, which is certified by the U.S. Small Business Administration as a woman-owned business, has 55 employees. They include two firefighting hand crews of 20 people each. Private wildland fire service contractors provide more than one-third of all boots-on-the-ground for wildfire suppression efforts, according to Claren. The Lost River crews are trained according to guidelines established by the U.S. Forest Service, which considers them “the infantry of wildland firefighters.”
The word infantry is anything but overstatement. Crew members must demonstrate endurance as well as knowledge of fire behavior, weather, safety, and incident command systems. They must also keep their weight in check as weigh-ins are necessary to maintain safe flying to places of deployment.
The Forest Service recognizes five types of hand crews. All Lost River employees fall into the category Type 2 Initial Attack. They can be mobilized in 2 hours. (At the time Claren talked with TimberLine, one crew was in Utah, and the other was in Colorado.) Two employees, Claren and Andrew Gifford, are certified by the National Wildfire Suppression Association to train new hires.
Lost River uses its Ponsse equipment to create and maintain utility right of ways, prepare sites, reduce brush along roadsides, and more. The Ponsse machines have designated employees to operate and transport them, explained Claren.
Lost River bought its first Ponsse machine, a 2008 Buffalo Dual, in 2010. “Lee Miller of Miller Timber (in Philomath, Oregon) helped us pick the Buffalo Dual for a project at Rocky Mountain National Park for hazardous tree removal,” said Claren. The Buffalo Dual can be quickly switched around to function as a forwarder or a harvester. It is equipped either with a Fecon Bull Hog CEM 36 masticator head for shredding woody vegetation and small trees or a tank for transporting water.
The 2014 Ponsse Ergo harvester also is equipped with a Fecon Bull Hog CEM36 crane-mounted mulching head. “Scott Englebrecht from Pape Machinery in Klamath Falls helped us select the right Fecon head, and Gary Cantrell helped us find the bucket action to connect the head to the Ponsse crane,” said Claren.
The combination of using a Ponsse harvester with the Fecon mulching attachment is effective for reducing fuels, particularly in areas with development, noted Claren. “These are the only rubber-tired, large mastication machines available for wildland firefighting, as far as I know, which makes them highly sought after because they work closely in the wildland-urban interface on paved roads.”
“The Fecon heads are amazing,” added Winston.
The Ponsse’s long crane reach with the mulching head is a big plus, Claren added. “The longer reach gives a tremendous advantage for working off paved roads around housing developments.”
Lost River works primarily in areas where ponderosa pine and mixed conifers are dominant. All harvested timber is merchandised, heading to sawmills and other mills.
Lost River is based in Merrill, a town of 900 in Klamath County, Oregon, that is just five miles from the state line with California. Merrill is at over 4,000 feet elevation.
The company’s equipment shop is in Klamath Falls, about 20 miles north. “This keeps equipment and crews safe by keeping them separate,” said Claren.
With both the Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges just to the west, Lost River teams deal with plenty of steep terrain when working close to home. The compactness and agility of the Ponsse machines are a good fit there and elsewhere.
However, the company’s hand crews can work anywhere. “We are a national resource,” said Winston. “Have sleeping bag, will travel.” Claren does most of the bidding for contracts to provide firefighting services and for hazardous fuels reduction projects.
Prior to starting Lost River, Claren worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior for nine years. In one segment of her tenure with Interior she worked as the engine captain at Lava Beds National Monument in Tulelake, Calif., helping develop and implement a prescribed fire plan there.
Winston is the main fabricator and innovator of ideas for modifying or improving equipment. “Winston dreams up and we fabricate most of his ideas unless time gets in the way,” said Claren. “Our team of Scott Pike and Aaron Vasilis are always there to give ideas and adjustments.”
For example, the company modified the Ponsse Buffalo Dual to be fitted with the water tank for fire suppression. “We have a 1,500-gallon tank and pump system that works exactly like a wildland fire engine,” said Claren. “It is eight-wheel drive and rubber-tired for work on paved roads or can be tracked up for more steep terrain that most fire engines cannot access.”
In addition to the Ponsse machines, Lost River owns a TimberPro forwarder and three Caterpillar D7 bulldozers.
Chainsaws also are an important tool in the company’s firefighting arsenal of equipment. “Yes, everyone uses chainsaws within the company,” said Claren. In fact, the company owns an affiliated business, Stukel Saw Shop in Klamath Falls. “We are dealers for both Stihl and Husqvarna,” said Claren, “and most of us are technicians.”
Each certified national fire crew includes certified technicians for both Stihl and Husqvarna. “One crew runs Husqvarna, and the other crew runs Stihl,” said Claren. “Both brands run great, and no one has to argue which brand is better. They can run both.”
Ponsse is a global company with manufacturing operations in Finland. Its focus is cut-to-length timber harvesting machines — harvesters, harvester attachments, and forwarders. Ponsse’s North American operations are headquartered in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
The Ponsse Ergo harvester is the company’s best-selling machine around the world. The all-around harvester is at work in the Siberian cold and the South American tropical heat. The next-to-largest in the line of Ponsse harvesters, it is available as either a six-wheel or eight-wheel version, the latter featuring Ponsse’s ActiveFrame cabin suspension system. It is powered by a Mercedes-Benz 275 hp diesel engine that boasts good fuel economy. The engine and double-circuit hydraulics produce excellent power for harvesting and transmission.
The Ponsse Buffalo Dual is a combination of an efficient harvester and a powerful forwarder, designed as a dual machine. It can be converted from a harvester to a forwarder and back in a few minutes. Powered by the same Mercedes-Benz 275 hp diesel engine, it has a carrying capacity of 1-½ tons or more.
(For more information about Ponsse machines, visit www.ponsse.com or call the company’s North American headquarters at (715) 369-4833.)
Customer-oriented solutions are a hallmark of Ponsse’s business strategy. Claren noted that Ponsse’s customer focus has been demonstrated repeatedly over the years.
“Jouni Viitikka (product support manager at Ponsse North America) has worked with Winston when it comes to hydraulic calibration and computer settings,” said Claren. “Jouni always answers the phone when we need him, God bless him. It seems we only call when Jouni has finally gotten a day off.”
The communication with Jouni is deeply reciprocal – a flow of information in two directions, explained Claren. “Jouni is always interested when Winston starts fabricating to create a better market niche for Lost River.”
Claren also cites the important resource she has in Stacy Wagler, business development manager at Ponsse North America. “He is always available when it comes to hazardous fuels applications — using Ponsse equipment to help create fire resilient landscapes with mastication and other mechanical applications with Ponsse equipment.”
There is a large push for hazardous fuels treatments in California to reduce catastrophic wildfires, observed Claren. Mulching or mastication is a large part of those treatments. Lost River is currently working with other companies with track mastication machines, looking for the perfect machines for mulching wood material to reduce hazardous fuels in the West. Lost River hand crews are also part of those treatments by thinning and piling material and providing the boots on the ground to do tasks that are not suited for machines.
Ideally, forests and wild areas are managed so that fires cannot start or spread. With its Ponsse machines, Lost River performs other services to promote sustainable forestry. They include thinning and select cuts. The company also provides forestry and landscape planning services and performs prescribed fires.
Lost River is a member of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy group sponsored by the Forest Service, and the California Wood Utilization Working Group (part of the state of California Forest Management Task Force).
Claren currently serves as vice president of the National Wildfire Suppression Association. The association represents some 300 private wildland fire services contractors that stand ready to respond to the needs of federal, state, and local agencies that experience wildland fires or other emergency incidents. It is headquartered in Mills City, Oregon.
The company sets high standards for itself. “To be known for our leadership through our passion for high standards, our respect for diversity and our commitment to create exceptional professional wildland firefighters and operators…” is the goal, said Claren.
The goal is important within the company and in “elevating the image of our industry,” said Claren. Leading by example is a philosophy that she takes to heart — leading from the ground and demonstrating on her own. She holds many certifications for expertise in wildland fire management.
“Helping the young people that we work with learn the value of hard work, integrity, duty and dedication to community” is the most rewarding part of the profession that she and Winston share, said Claren. To be considered for a place on the team, prospective employees must complete entry-level fire school and be 18 years of age or older.
The Ponsse machines provide a lot of flexibility to Lost River, noted Claren. They can be called into service for forestry operations and wildland firefighting tasks on any terrain. With their tires they travel and work well in urban interfaces — areas with paved roads and homes and other buildings. When working in the woods, they can be equipped with Eco-Tracks to improve maneuverability in steep terrain.
This year’s wildfire season has been catastrophic, noted Claren. “More than 4 million acres have been burned in California alone this year, and it’s not over. Many communities have been lost in the West, and there will be more without hazardous fuels treatments, using every tool in the toolbox, including prescribed fire.”
The cost and toll are stunning. “The cost of fire suppression in 2018 was over $2 billion,” said Claren, “and this year will be much higher.”
“There is never enough money in the budget for hazardous fuels treatments, yet we spend billions on fire suppression and lose more national treasure, personal property, and human lives.”
“We need to come up with innovations that can provide wood products that the public wants and needs from no-value material in order to create fire resilient landscapes and fire adapted communities. We need to tend to America’s gardens in the West. This includes logging, thinning, and overall forest stewardship on every level.”
When Claren and Winston take time off, they enjoy bird hunting together. “Our wirehaired pointers would like us to chukar hunt more often,” said Claren.