NEVADA CITY, Calif. January 7, 2019 – Brush clearing is the gift that keeps on giving, there is always more to cut. Winter is a great time to tackle this fuel reduction project,  fewer leaves and softer soil make some of the work easier.

Removing undergrowth is a critical step in making your property and your home 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.

Don’t forget to 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 do not need to remove all vegetation within the 30-100ft 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.

Walking on your property after a rain event, you can 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.

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

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.

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).

Chipping is another way to dispose of brush piles, as long as they are accessible.

Logging services operate large chippers that reduce brush piles to chips that can be either hauled away or burned during the winter months – with the necessary permits, depending on the size of the piles.

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.

Nevada City recently launched a GoatFundMe campaign with the objective to have city-owned properties (450 acres total, according to the city) grazed off. Their high priority for this winter: behind Pioneer Park, Deer Creek environs including water treatment plant, Woods Ravine between Hwy 49 and Cement Hill Road, Sugar Loaf, and the old airport.

Prescribed Fire

“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 depositing 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.

In an upcoming segment of this series we’ll talk about burn piles and broadcast burns in detail.

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.

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

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.

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.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Dr. Kate Wilkin, Forestry, Fire, and Natural Resource Advisor for Sutter, Yuba, Butte, and Nevada Counties – University of California Cooperative Extension for the UC resources.

This concludes Week 5 of 25, next Monday will be all about Driveways – Access and Egress starts here.

Find previous stories in our special Ready for Fire Season section.

One reply on “Preparing for Wildfire Season in Nevada County – Week 5: Brush clearing and disposal”

  1. Thank you so much for this 25 week break down for preparing our property. We were just informed of AAAs plan to drop their homeowner’s policy for our area. While we have always maintained the defensible space around our home, and out structures, we need to better prepare for the worst case scenario.

Comments are closed.