This week, we’ll tackle brush and sheds. Brush clearing, also know as the gift that keeps on giving, is on our weekly menu. Winter, even one as dry and warm as this one, is a great time to tackle the fuel reduction project. Fewer leaves and relatively softer soil make some of the work easier. After the winter storm, more brush than usual awaits your attention.


Removing the undergrowth is a critical step in making your property safer. Restoring the landscape to a more natural state contributes to forest health, minimizes ignition risks and, in case of a fire, can reduce fire intensity thanks to a reduced fuel load.

Many options available

Depending on parcel size and the financial and/or time investment you are able to make, here are the general categories for clearing brush:

  • Manual treatment – hand saws, loppers, chainsaws etc.
  • Mechanized treatment – masticators, chippers
  • Chemical treatment – herbicides
  • Grazing – goats, sheep and cows
  • Prescribed fire – piles or broadcast burns

All these options can be combined for maximum effect, the goal is to achieve a safe and healthy landscape.

Ask for advice from your fire department, request free visit from a Fire Safe Council defensible space advisor or from a Natural Resources Advisor with the Nevada County Resource Conservation District. A licensed forester can advise you on the best treatment option(s) for larger parcels.

Pro Tip: Take pictures! Before and after pictures are great reminders of the work done and can inspire others to do the same.

To have adequate defensible space, you don’t need to remove all vegetation within a 100ft zone. Create ‘vegetation islands’ with limbed-up trees or well-sculpted manzanita (if you must) with plenty of open space between the vegetation.

Talk to your neighbors and team up to create an open landscape for everyone’s safety. If privacy is a concern, consider a fence instead of a wall of brush.

Manual Treatment

No matter the tools you plan on using, a good pair of gloves, safety glasses and sturdy shoes will make the task easier. Whether you are cutting Himalaya blackberry vines, tackling a patch of poison oak or taking a saw to manzanita, always protect your hands and eyes.

After a decent rain event, easily pluck those cedar seedlings or any small plants for that matter.

Using hand tools on small fuels is labor-intensive, especially on slopes. However, you have more control to achieve the desired look for your property by shaping fuels, limbing up trees and spacing fuels manually. When spacing vegetation islands, take into consideration how much the bushes or trees will grow in five years. Decorative and drought-resistant plants like Lavender, Rosemary and Sage tend to spread out once established.

chainsaw and protective equipment

Chain saw use is only recommended with proper safety equipment, if you are not comfortable using a chain saw please consider hiring a professional or get training first.

Disposing of the cut materials can be done by chipping, hauling to a green waste station or pile burning.

The Fire Safe Council operates a chipping program in western Nevada County. Full details can be found on their Chipping Program page, including how to stack the cut material and what can and cannot be chipped.

Nevada County offers free storm-related green waste disposal to Nevada County residents for three extended weekends this spring.

This disposal program is designed to help homeowners address the storm debris, like tree trunks and branches, on their properties in advance of fire season. The community green waste drop off events will be available from 9:00 am- 3:00 pm at 12625 Brunswick Rd, Grass Valley on the following days:

  • March 11th, 12th & 13th
  • March 25th, 26th & 27th
  • April 8th, 9th & 10th

Mechanized treatment

Mastication can treat a large area in a few hours or days. Limits on the use of a masticator are steep slopes, wet weather and cost. Masticators are ideal for an initial treatment of a larger parcel as they can clear both brush and smaller trees fast. The cost of these larger-scale fuel treatments can be lessened by applying for cost-sharing programs such as USDA Environmental Quality Incentive Program  (EQIP) for parcels of 1 acre or more, or Cal Fire’s California Forest Improvement Program (CFIP).

Chemical Treatment

Herbicide prevents the germination and accumulation of new fuels. Chemical treatments do not remove fuels, but can target invasive species to encourage the growth of natural fire-adapted vegetation. Chemical fuel treatments perform well in areas that are too steep or risky for other treatments to work. You can find more information on the UC Cooperative Extension website here.


Fuel reduction through grazing is very effective on grass and shrub landscapes. Goats will graze on star thistle, poison oak and blackberries.  Grazing will only remove surface fuels but leave roots intact. This type of treatment generally needs to be followed by either manual or mechanical removal or the remaining stalks.

Prescribed fire and burn piles

“Good fires prevent bad ones” is more than a slogan. Reintroducing fire into the landscape under controlled circumstances is one of the most cost-effective tools to manage forest and range lands. Native Americans used fire as a tool to maintain open landscapes and improve forest health. Agencies are increasing the use of controlled burns and prescribed fires to manage public lands.

Brush piles and chipped material are the first steps in reducing ladder fuels and creating more defensible space. However, taking fuel from eye level and lowering it on the ground does not reduce the fuel load, it only redistributes it.

If you intend to do any burning whatsoever beyond a pile of brush and limbs resulting from routine residential maintenance, then you will probably need an Air Pollution Permit and need to contact the Air District for clear direction. You can join the Yuba-Bear Burn Cooperative and learn about preparing and executing prescribed burns.

A primer on burn piles can be found here. The most important message of the explainer: If it’s too windy or too wet at your location, even if it’s a permissible burn day, postpone burning until conditions improve.

Most Resistant Weeds

If Scotch Broom has invaded your property – complete eradication will take time. Seeds of this non-native invasive plant can lay dormant for decades. Pull the plant out completely when the soil is soft. Rent or borrow a broom puller (weed wrench) for larger patches. Scotch Broom should not be chipped, seeds will spread even more if you chip a pile of Broom. Cutting Scotch Broom at soil level is another method, sometimes in combination with “painting” the remaining stem with an herbicide (consult with a licensed pest control advisor.) The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County has more information and even hosts Scotch Broom Challenges, check their special section here.

Blackberries, especially Himalaya Blackberry patches,  are another weed that can quickly infest areas and create ladder fuel by winding their way up on trees. Be prepared to cut the vines for years before you win the battle.

Himalaya blackberry,
Himalaya blackberry, Rubus armeniacus, flowers and foliage. Photo by Joseph M. DiTomaso.

According to the UC Integrated Pest management program, “The scrambling habit of Himalaya and the other vining wild blackberries smothers existing plant growth. In addition, the tangled mass of thorny stems blocks access of humans, livestock, equipment, and vehicles to pastures and waterways. In addition, it can host Pierce’s disease and serve as a vector to movement of the pathogen to other agricultural and nonagricultural areas, including riparian sites. In forest areas, timber-logging operations create large open areas that wild blackberries often invade. When grazed, the thorny stems can injure the nasal passages of livestock. Another undesirable aspect of vining blackberry plants is they are a good source of food and shelter for rats.  Wild blackberries are able to regenerate from the crown or rhizomes following mowing, burning, or herbicide treatment. This makes them difficult to control, and control measures often require follow-up treatment. Land managers often rely on a combination of mechanical and chemical control methods followed by a prescribed burn to dispose of vegetative material. Because of the extensive underground root system, digging out the plants in a home landscape is a difficult undertaking. Home gardeners generally must rely on foliage-applied herbicide treatments to control an infestation of wild blackberries. One nonchemical option in the home landscape is the use of a rototiller to till the ground several times after the canes have been removed.

Their dedicated blackberry page has a variety of management options for the thorny problem.

Poison oak, besides from climbing trees and thus creating additional ladder fuel, has an added defense mechanism – many people are sensitive to the oils contained in the plant and reactions range from a mild rash to severe allergic response. Never burn poison oak, the smoke creates a health hazard and can cause severe respiratory irritation.

When removing poison oak with hand tools, make sure you remove the entire root. Leaving even a small portion of the root system intact practically guarantees the plant will resprout vigorously in the Spring.

Scotch Broom, blackberries and poison oak will test your endurance by coming back (a little less) year after year – but your persistence will pay off in the end.

Hazardous waste disposal makes your home safer

old batteries

“Out with the old – safely” is another theme for this week’s readiness story. Who doesn’t have an almost empty can of paint, motor oil, various cleaners and solvents or a stack of old batteries in a shed or garage? Now is as good a time as any to tackle the cleanup of these remnants of projects past.

We asked Nevada County’s Director of Environmental Health Amy Irani to explain what constitutes hazardous waste and how to properly dispose of it. Here’s what she had to say:

Many residential homes with garages, tool sheds, storage sheds or other outdoor structures often become an inadvertent storage location for household hazardous waste or HHW. The HHWs can often be sources of fuel that add to the destructive force and devastation of wildfires. Some easy housekeeping and routine surveys of garages, tool sheds, storage sheds and other outdoor structures can eliminate the fuel sources.

dregs of paint and solvents

First, we need to decide what exactly is Household Hazardous Waste (HHW)? The Department of Toxic Substances Control or DTSC utilizes the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definition of Household Hazardous Waste as products containing hazardous substances that are used and disposed of by an individual rather than industrial consumers. These products include some paints, solvents and pesticides. In California, it is illegal to dispose of household hazardous waste in the trash, down the drain, or by abandonment. Household hazardous waste needs to be disposed of through a Household Hazardous Waste Program.

Common household hazardous wastes include but are not limited to:

  • Antifreeze
  • Batteries
  • Drain cleaners
  • Electronic Wastes (TVs, computer monitors, cell phones, etc.)
  • Glue and Adhesives
  • Household cleaners
  • Oven cleaners
  • Paints
  • Pesticides
  • Pool Cleaners
  • Solvents
  • Used Oil
  • Waste containing Asbestos
  • Wastes containing Mercury (thermometers, fluorescent lights, etc.)

In addition to those wastes listed above, household products that are hazardous waste can be identified from warnings on the product label. If the label information reads:

  • Danger
  • Poison/Toxic means it can be poisonous when ingested (by eating or drinking), absorbed through skin, or inhaled (breathed) – even a little bit
  • Corrosive/Acid means it can eat or wear away at many materials including living tissue
  • Reactive/Explosive – means it can be explosive or produce a deadly gas
  • Ignitable/Flammable – means it can easily catch fire
  • Environmental Hazard
  • Caution/Warning

Second, take an inventory of your garage, storage sheds or tool sheds of all of the materials listed. Identify any used or old gasoline fuels, used motor oils, used or spent paint solvent containers and determine if any unused solvent, gasoline or oils are necessary to keep in storage.

Once you have taken your inventory and decided on the items you want to dispose of, next step is to locate the closest facility to your location where you can safely transport the hazardous household waste and dispose of properly.

In Nevada County, we have the main approved HHWF which is the McCourtney Road Transfer Station and Recycling Center located at 14741 Wolf Mountain Road, Grass Valley, CA. The Household Hazardous Waste collection is open Friday-Sunday 8:00 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

In addition to the McCourtney Road Transfer Station, the North San Juan Transfer Station located at 10125 Flume Street in North San Juan, CA open Friday – Tuesday 8:30am – 4:30pm accepts tires, cardboard, oil and oil filters, lightbulbs and batteries.

The Washington Road Transfer Station located at 15886 Gaston Road in Washington, CA is open Friday – Sunday 8:30am-4:30pm and accepts tires, cardboard, oil and oil filters, lightbulbs and batteries.

Pro Tip: The busiest traffic days at the McCourtney transfer station are typically Wednesdays and Sundays. Check the webcam to see the line of cars waiting. If you make a trip to the transfer station to dispose of hazardous waste, check your home too and recycle the old cell phones, computers and other electronic gizmos at the same time.

Next week, we’ll talk about woodstoves, chimneys, roofs, gutters and screens. Until then, stay safe and chip away at the list. If you want to share before and after photos, send them our way!