Grant to Buy New Firefighting Equipment

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

April 19, 2024

Photo shows an FAE model RCU55 remote controlled tool carrier with a masticator attachment.

The County Fire Department is getting a sizable grant from its sister State agency to buy some new equipment that will help with its efforts to fight wildfires in the future.

County Fire Chief, John Owens, asked Supervisors for permission to accept a $477,000 grant through the San Luis Unit of Cal Fire. The two agencies are partnered to provide fire services to many of the unincorporated areas of the county.

The local Cal Fire Unit is getting the money from the Cal Fire Southern Region in Sacramento to conduct “vegetation management projects.”

The money would be used to purchase two, remote controlled masticators, two trailers for the masticators; and two, utility terrain vehicles or UTVs, each with a trailer. 

According to the U.S. Forest Service, a masticator is an attachment that “grinds or flails woody vegetation into chips that are deposited on the forest floor. It effectively cuts down and grinds up whole standing trees in one process. The main application is for reducing fire risk.”

Essentially, a masticator attaches to an excavator, tractor or Bobcat and has two cutting heads. The top blades chop vegetation and an array of rollers grinds it into mulch. It runs on hydraulics.

The fire chief said they were very useful tools. “These tools and technology,” Chief Owens said, “will increase the capacity of resource management to conduct vegetation management projects across San Luis Obispo County.”

The UTVs allow for better mobility in what can be rugged terrain. “For example,” Chief Owens said, “the use of UTVs has been a tremendous asset, reducing wear and tear on County Fire trucks. County Fire routinely meets with representatives, agencies and landowners to discuss prescribed fires, fuel breaks, and other vegetation management projects and the UTVs are proving very useful for efficient site visits.”

Fire regulations and increasing standards handed down form the State are expected to continue to change in the future and the UTVs will help them keep up. As County Fire partnerships and demand for more projects and monitoring grows, these vehicles will allow personnel to cover more land and assist more landowners with vegetation management projects such as prescribed fires, shaded fuel breaks, or roadside treatments to enhance emergency ingress and egress. These projects protect both residential and natural communities, while reducing wildfire spread and intensity.”

The masticators will be labor savers. “The remote-controlled masticators will be a force multiplier,” Chief Owen said, “as fewer people are needed to implement projects since the machine can be operated by one to two people and conduct the work of a small crew.”

They are versatile too. “These masticators can work on steep slopes, heavy terrain, and can be utilized by trained crew members to efficiently treat and/or prep prescribed fire sites, truck trail maintenance, and shaded fuel breaks,” Chief Owen said.

The grant is expected to cover all the costs according to the Chief, with no local money required from the County. The equipment will be under warranty and the County Fire crews will do maintenance as they use the machines. 

The past couple of fire seasons have been relatively quiet in San Luis Obispo County. The county has seen several giant fires break out in the past, for example the 1985 Las Pilitas Fire; the 1994 Highway 41 Fire; and the 2016 Chimney Fire. Each of those blazes burned tens of thousands of acres.

The fire chief said the new equipment would be used all over the county. 

“This will help protect multiple communities from wildfire,” Chief Owens said, “such as Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero, Los Osos, Pismo Beach, Avila, Parkhill, and numerous others.”


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