Tough Ground Clearing Challenge In Redding

By Valerie Van Kooten | September 28, 2010

Edited by Loren Faulkner.

Atlas Tree, from Santa Rosa, California, has been providing brush and tree clearing work for a northern California power company for some time. But the job that is taking place near Redding — in extreme northern California — is part of a two-year contract that combines several difficult situations into one location.

"These are existing power lines, cross country lines, that have higher voltage and feed the smaller lines," says Rich Kingsborough, president of Atlas Tree. "These aren't like the lines you see in your front yard — we're going over steep hills and back country to reach them. The terrain is very rocky and difficult to navigate."

The lines can also be in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes the Atlas Tree crew might be 10 miles from the nearest paved road. They need to rely on the forest roads, which are often poorly marked trails. One wrong turn can get you lost for hours.

Other Problems

Along with difficult terrain, Atlas Tree must consider the additional factor of environmental issues. They need to be careful not to disturb environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands, creek crossings, or areas containing endangered or protected vegetation.

One of those protected plants is the elderberry, which is the host plant of an endangered caterpillar. Before they begin clearing an area, the six crew members of Atlas Tree go into an area and tag those bushes and trees that are protected. These trees and bushes will not be removed or trimmed by the crew members.

Kingsborough knew that getting a towable brush chipper to the site — and then being able to leave a small environmental footprint — was going to be difficult. He also knew that a towable brush chipper could not traverse the rocky terrain and that his crew would need to move material to the chipper, adding considerable time to the project.

"We decided the most environmentally friendly and efficient way was to use track-mounted equipment with very low ground pressure," Kingsborough says. "Otherwise, there would have been an extreme amount of hand work involved." In this instance they chose a Vermeer BC1400TX brush chipper.

Most of what is being chipped is large woody bushes, along with some small oak trees, pine and fir trees, some of which can be more than 100 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter. A special problem is Manzanita bushes, which are found largely in the western United States and northern Mexico. Kingsborough says this low-lying bush can produce very crooked trunks with hard wood.

"With accessibility a problem, a larger chipper would have been very difficult to get into this area," Kingsborough says. The job allows for Atlas Tree to broadcast the chips on the site at no more than 6 inches deep.

"We try to get an even ground cover," Kingsborough says. "We use the wireless remote control to operate the chipper and one guy running it can flip a switch and hydraulically turn the chute in one setup. That way it doesn't build up a large blanket of mulch." Specifications for the job require 35 feet of safe clearance around the power lines, most of which are 500-kilovolt. Atlas Tree is giving the company about 50 feet of clearance.

"Our customer is very happy with our progress," says Kingsborough. "The scope of what our crews are doing in such a short time is amazing, period. A lot of it was solid brush, and you couldn't even walk through it. Now it looks like a park."

Due to the environmentally sensitive areas at this location, all of the trees and bushes had to be cut and chipped by hand, Kingsborough says, with the total area being treated about 19 acres of solid brush.

"We estimated that it would take about four days per acre to complete this, based on previous similar jobs," he says. "We are on pace to complete this job ... (at) more than one-half acre per day. This speaks highly of the crew and of our new chipper."

At the Redding location, about 85 percent of the job is complete. Once the Atlas crews are finished there, they will move on to another location where some high-hazard trees need to be removed.

Having employees work around the danger of high-voltage lines requires education. Atlas Tree employees go through the Electrical Hazard Awareness Program (EHAP), sponsored by the Tree Care Industry Association.

"They may already be veteran tree climbers, but this course educates them on the dangers of working around high-power lines," Kingsborough says.

Atlas Tree, founded by Kingsborough in 1982, started with a chain saw and a pickup truck. The company has grown from a one-man operation to a complete tree care service that handles both residential and commercial jobs. The company now has 50 employees and has residential crews all over Sonoma County, along with commercial crews all over California.

Kingsborough expects the power company to provide Atlas Tree with continued work in the future. The two-year project the company is currently working on is budgeted at $2.5 million.

"We've done other work for this company in the past, and they've been very pleased with our work," Kingsborough says.

Valerie Van Kooten is a technical writer with Two Rivers Marketing, Des Moines, Iowa.

Equipment information provided by Vermeer Manufacturing Company Pella, Iowa.