Building a One-Woman (or Man) Defensible Space
By Carol Rawle

In 1995, I started building my home on the Santa Fe Trail Ranch and the first thing I bought was a chain saw.  I came fresh from a desert environment, and believe me, the desert can and does burn, but what I saw surrounding my house, while charming me, scared the daylights out of me.

My home site is on a south-facing slope, and it's covered in highly flammable juniper, pinion, and scrub oak, and it was growing right up to the building site.  It was so thick, the deer had trouble moving through it, let alone a person.  The prevailing wind is also out of the south, and it doesn't take much imagination to understand how fast it could push a wildfire up that slope toward my house.

So, while the contractor was building my house, I got busy with my long-handled loppers and my chain saw.  I tackled the scrub oak closest to the house first.  Mindful that the over-reaching goal was to create a fire break, I also wanted to see what sort of landscaping was inside all that homely gambel oak brush.  Having small goals inside the larger goal kept me focused and from feeling overwhelmed.

It was slow-going.  What did I expect?  I was just one woman with a chain saw and a lopper.  But after the first year, I'd managed to beat back the wilderness 100 feet on the dangerous south slope and 50 feet on the other three sides.  And I'd created areas of landscaping, such as it was.  I "built" a meadow by removing wall-to-wall oak brush and small junipers and pinions.  I surrounded my meadow with family groupings of larger junipers by thinning and limbing them.  In other words, I had cleared space, but still had islands of trees and shade.

I'm murder on oak brush.  Some people like to leave some - I take it all out.  It's a big mountain - let it go live somewhere else.  But I do leave the mahagony shrubs, strategically thinned and scattered around for my deer friends to eat.  And they really do appreciate my efforts.  They visit every single day, and I know it's because it's now easy for them to move around.  They can see if a predator is trying to sneak up on them, and where there was once only oak, there's now a meadow full of grass to eat.

So over the years I persevered, whittling away at the dense undergrowth, limbing up trees, and getting a little bolder each year about removing trees.  Sometimes I go back to previously thinned areas and take out another tree here and there.  The oak regrowth was a huge challenge.  If I didn't keep it beat back, the oak would come back just as thick in just a few short years.  I didn't have the income for a big, sexy mowing machine, but I did understand herbicide.

I spent my entire park ranger career challenging one invasive weed problem after another.  At one park it was French broom, at another it was poison oak, and one of the worst was salt cedar.  However, the right herbicide approach tamed them all.  But I can honestly say I met my match when I encountered this stubborn, ubiquitous, devious, diabolical, and demonic gambel oak that we have here.

It's taken me thirteen years of persistance and cunning to finally arrive at an approach that works.  The simplest is to just mow it - if you have a few thousand dollars to buy a brush mower.  Repeated mowing deprives the roots of nutrients and after several years, it'll become quite docile.  But not only couldn't I afford a machine, I'm not quite large enough to be able to control one on these uneven slopes.  So I experimented with herbicides.  I even studied and took the test to get my county restricted use pesticide applicators license so I could legally buy and use the really, really nasty stuff.  But all that got me was dead pinions.  The oak just laughed at the highly toxic stuff and kept right on growing.

Then I stumbled on a potent cocktail, the ingredients which anyone can buy over the counter, mix up and use.  To two gallons of water in a pump sprayer, add five ounces of Roundup, three ounces of 2-4D, about half a quart of diesel fuel, and a couple squirts of Dawn dertergent.  Shake well, and keep shaking everytime you pump the sprayer.  Evenly wet the emergent oak leaves just after it's turned from it's rose color to green in spring, and spray again in late summer or the fall any regrowth before the nights get down to freezing.

If you're dealing with large-diameter gambel oak, you can chain- saw it down, dig down a few inches and expose the "elbow", take an ax and chop part-way or completely through it.  Then paint or spray herbicide on the fresh cut at a 25/25/50 ratio of Roundup/2-4D/water.  I keep a batch mixed up in a small spray bottle and treat as I clear.  I am pleased to say there's very little regrowth with this method.  But don't bother after the oak goes dormant in the fall and winter.  It won't phase it.

After twelve years of lopping, chain-sawing, thinning and limbing, I still hadn't adequately been able to tackle the large south slope below my house that never stopped giving me wildfire nightmares.  Not only did I not have the money for a big sexy mower, I also didn't have money to buy an ATV to help me drag material up the long, steep slope, and I had got about as far down as I could, physically dragging the stuff up.

Then last year a miracle happened.  A wonderful machine called a bull-hog came on the ranch and started clearing small chunks of acreage for people.  I liked what it did.  It worked "neat".  Not like the hydro-ax of the year before, that left huge, ragged chunks lying around.  But the real "miracle" was that there was government grant money available to help property owners with the expense.

Dave Skogberg and Diana Novacek have been working closely with CK Morey for going on three years now to get grant money for large thinning projects on the perimeter of the Santa Fe Trail Ranch.  But there is also money becoming available to individual property owners to help pay for thinning.

The most amazing thing was to discover that many of those hours I spent the previous year lopping and chain-sawing and dragging brush and chipping it could be cashed in as "in-kind".

The final product

My chain saw worked at $4/hr.  If I had any big machines like mowers, tractors or commercial chippers, they would have worked from $25/hr to $40/hr.  This is all considered "in-kind" and it can be applied in lieu of matching funds toward a grant.

So that was how I was able to afford to finally get that murderous south slope cleared.  That was last June.  The bull-hog did a marvelous job, but I still needed to go back and limb up trees and clear out brush from under trees, and gather up the larger debris that the machine didn't shred.

The final result is a beautiful, park-like slope, with nicely spaced tree groups, and no flammable understory.  If a wildfire comes galloping up that slope, there is nothing to support either a ground fire or a crown fire.  And the best thing of all - it was accomplished in a day what would have taken me a couple of years and untold physical effort.

Dave Skogberg is currently working on securing grants for this year and next year.  These grants will fund both the continuing shaded fuel break thinning project around the perimeter of the ranch as well as smaller amounts of money to be given to individual property owners for their own thinning projects.

In order to meet the requirements of matching funds to qualify for the grants, Dave needs all of us to tally up the hours we've worked clearing around our homes since last spring.  It's all "money in the bank" and, added up, will be used in lieu of actual money as the matching funds.  At $17.55/hr, it turns out those hours you spent lopping away at scrub oak add up to quite a lot of money.  It will help fund the large fuel breaks that will protect our ranch from catastrophic wildfire.  And in turn, it may help you qualify for some grant money of your own to pull off your own small miracle.