Big Brush-Clearing Job Requires Innovative Approach

Somehow, along a stretch between San Diego and El Centro, CA, a power line with a series of 450 electrical towers had to be installed. This particular scenario involved several remote locations that were completely inaccessible other than by air. Colwell Equipment, an excavating contractor in Ramona, CA, was hired to perform land clearing in advance of the construction of clearing paths, roads, and a 100 x 100-foot helicopter landing pad.

Bill Colwell, owner of Colwell Equipment, and his brother, Ben, had a plan. Ben proposed setting up three six-man crews for the job, each equipped with brushcutters, a chipper, industrial trimmers and chainsaws.

Although at least half of the work would take place on privately owned property, the crews would need to meet several federal and state guidelines. For example, some stubble (2 to 4 inches of plant) needed to remain to help reduce wind flow and the potential for wildfire.

Unique equipment provides solution

The Colwell brothers were in the early stages of developing a carrying system to transport the brush by helicopter to where it would be chipped up and discarded when they visited Mason’s Saw & Lawnmower Service in El Cajon, CA. The meeting dramatically changed the approach to the entire project. After just a few minutes of conversation regarding the clearing portion of the project, the owner of Mason's Saw, Paul Lasiter, recommended PECO's Brush Blazer.

“When (the Colwells) began explaining the details of this job, I had an immediate recommendation for them,” Lasiter recalls. “I knew off the bat that the Brush Blazer would fit like a glove for this project. I’ve been out on these types of sites a lot. I’ve seen these machines run, so I know what they can do and where they can do it. By their description, the Brush Blazer was going to be perfect.”

In line with CAL FIRE and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendations, the Brush Blazer would leave the right amount of stubble. The Colwell brothers then coupled the Brush Blazer with an Eliet chipper also purchased from Mason’s Saw, which would allow the crews to cut and chip all of the trimmed material and leave it on site.

Tackling tough conditions

“The jobsite was absolutely brutal,” Lasiter said. “Everyone thinks the San Diego area is pretty beaches and oceanfront property, but it’s actually a lot of canyons with extremely flammable brush. The Brush Blazer handles the brush and the transitions on hillsides quickly and efficiently.”

After calculating the amount of ground that needed to be cleared, the Colwells purchased two Brush Blazers and developed the rigging to transport them via helicopter from site to site. They used the machine’s crevices and nylon slings to rig up a four-point lift system. From there, steel-braided cables reached an I-hook and were affixed onto the helicopter.

The self-propelled Brush Blazers cleared the pads and areas before the dozers were brought in. And, because the Brush Blazer can propel up a hill with a 15-18° grade, it eased the work for the crews, who otherwise would have cleared brush by hand when the terrain was too steep or rocky.

“On terrain where the ground wasn’t so steep, in areas with heavy brush 1 to 6 feet high, one person operating the Brush Blazer could cut down the equivalent to what six to eight men with chainsaws and brush chippers could cut,” Bill Colwell says. The Brush Blazers were capable of tackling everything that needed cutting on the site, he adds, from wild buckwheat to cactus, from trees 3 inches in diameter to 1- to 4-inch material growing in clusters up to 11 feet wide.

Crew members would drop the Brush Blazers at a pad site, clear the brush, pick them up again, and move to the next pad site. Meanwhile, they dropped the chipper onto the cleared pad to chip up recently processed materials. “Those chippers worked every day," Bill said. "They went non-stop for hundreds of hours."

Each tower required 10,000 square feet of pad. So at 450 towers, the crew needed to clear nearly 4.5 million square feet of land, or the equivalent of about 103 acres. Given a timeline of just eight months, the crews had to clear more than 550,000 square feet per month (roughly 12 acres) to finish on time—not including the paths and roads that needed clearing for easier access.

“The Brush Blazer was a key component when it came to clearing ahead of dozers or in spots where we weren’t allowed to use heavy equipment,” Bill said. “We used them a ton in the high desert area where the land was more level and there were a lot of sporadic brush and cacti. They’re really durable, hearty little machines.”

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