April 21, 2004 | General

Composter Responds To Fire Prevention Initiatives

Dan Emerson
BioCycle April 2004, Vol. 45, No. 4, p. 34

Nestled in the Sacramento Mountains, surrounded by the Lincoln National Forest and the Mescalero Apache Reservation, Ruidoso, New Mexico is a popular summer resort destination. But the dense Ponderosa Pine forests in the area are a mixed blessing. The vacation village of 8,500 (summer population around 25,000) is also ranked number two in the country for wildfire risk by the U.S. Forest Service. In recent years, a drought in the region has led to two major wildfires. In March 2002, a 972 acre wildfire in the Sacramento Mountains near Ruidoso forced the evacuation of 1,300 people and destroyed 29 homes in the upscale community of Kokopelli. A fire two years earlier on the edge of the forest consumed 7,500 acres. The fires focused attention on the need to thin the area’s trees and underbrush to reduce the danger of future events.
The resulting abundance of green waste (primarily coniferous trees) has made Sierra Contracting, Inc. (SCI) in Ruidoso Downs one of the fastest growing composters in the southwestern U.S. In 1996, the village’s construction and demolition landfill was closing, with the next closest landfill 81 miles away. SCI founder and owner Van Patton, then a local realtor serving on the village planning and zoning commission, decided to start a business to fill the C&D disposal void. On a five-acre site about five miles outside of Ruidoso, Patton installed a 10-foot deep, 40 foot long fire pit with a portable air curtain across the top. However, environmental concerns, the risk of fire and skyrocketing insurance costs led Patton to seek a better solution. In 1999, he started to make the transition to composting, converting his five-acre site, acquiring an adjacent five acres, and talking to local officials about using the material for erosion control.
In 1998, the village of Ruidoso directed its Solid Waste Department to buy a grapple truck and institute a forest debris collection service for village residents. A contract to receive forest debris was developed with Sierra Contracting. The initial contract allowed for 20,000 cubic yards of forest debris to be collected annually and transported by the village to the SCI facility for grinding and composting. A charge of $3.50/month was added to residential solid waste billing. In 2000, as demand for the service increased, the village purchased another grapple truck and added an urban forester to the Planning and Zoning staff. The forester’s responsibilities included raising the public awareness of forest issues and providing technical support for residents, and coordinating with the community’s Forest Task Force.
One of the Forest Task Force’s recommendations was to expand the forest debris collection service. The Village Council doubled the contract with SCI to 40,000 cy annually, approved purchase of two additional grapple trucks, and expanded service to include vacant lots and commercial property. This expansion was funded by increasing the monthly solid waste fee from $3.50 to $5/month. In addition, residents can bring forest debris to SCI for no charge. Last year, 57,000 cubic yards (cy) of green waste were processed, almost triple the 20,000 collected in the first year of the company’s contract with the village.
In June 2002, a series of ordinances were passed mandating fuels management on all lands within village limits and to all site development extending approximately three miles outside village limits. Ruidoso is the first municipality in the state of New Mexico to create and mandate enforceable fuels management and wildfire hazard abatement measures. (See the accompanying sidebar for more details on Ruidoso’s Community Forest Management Plan.)
At its site, SCI maintains two large, static piles – one in a “state of composting” and the other with finished material. Equipment includes a rubber-tired loader/excavator to move material and turn piles. Patton also recently purchased a Vermeer 525 horizontal grinder that has an output of 100 cubic yards per hour, with a 2-inch screen. The site also has a WHO grinder, and recycles scrap metal and lumber as part of its C&D handling service.
In composting pine needles, “the key is to get each needle fractured by grinding,” Patton says. Needles that go into the pile unbroken take three times as long to “break down.” Sierra’s general manager and composter, Paul Wetzel, has adopted a method of regrinding and rescreening the product. “It’s eliminated a lot of waste,” according to Patton. “To get mature, stable compost that meets the new DOT specs, we’ve pretty much got it down.” For Sierra’s operation, the primary ongoing problem is piles that are too hot in one spot and not hot enough in another, he adds. “It’s a constant challenge to keep the pile cooking evenly and consistently. We have to turn it a lot.”
In turning green waste into compost, SCI can finish material within 120 days, if needed. Maintaining compost piles above 60°C for three or four weeks eliminates any problems with weed seeds or insects, Patton says. “If that is done properly, those things are not an issue. Our biggest problem is when we get ready to ship a pile, making sure it is stable and not still hot.”
Obviously, fire-prevention measures are important at the Sierra site, which is equipped with two wells and a 1,500 gallon water tank. As a 24-hour safety measure, one of the firm’s truck drivers lives on the property, to serve as a fire watcher. The company has defensible space on each side, varying in width from 50 feet to 1,200 feet wide. In the adjacent national forest, Patton has a permit from the Forest Service to thin the first five acres, to reduce fire hazard as needed.
Since launching its compost business, Sierra has developed a loyal, albeit small, customer base of residents who bring their pickups to the site to pick up compost in quantities of three yards or less. In addition, SCI’s contract with the village of Ruidoso includes a community give-back program. “For every 1,000 cy of feedstocks the village brings in, we give back 50 cy of high quality, screened compost for use on athletic fields and parks around the village,” says Patton.
However, not long after starting his compost business, Patton realized the supply of material was exceeding the demand. “We were receiving so much raw feedstock, we had to come up with a way to start moving more material, by finding some larger users – 1,000 cy or more,” he recalls. Pecan growers in the nearby Mesilla Valley have provided one substantial market for SCI’s product. But bigger things were in store.
In 2002, after reading a BioCycle article about the Texas Department of Transportation’s use of compost in highway landscaping projects, Patton contacted Barrie Cogburn, landscape architect for the TxDOT. Cogburn and other DOT officials decided to give Sierra’s compost a try, and initiated three pilot, erosion control projects in December 2002. “Typically, we used to put down 4-inches of topsoil and seed directly into that,” says Cogburn. “Because the Texas winds were continuing to erode the soil, it was getting to be a real problem. Through the years, our topsoil sources have been exhausted, which, I think, is typical of many states. We also found out that what we were paying for ‘topsoil’ was actually being mined out of a pit somewhere; it was subsurface soil that had no organic matter. It’s so simple when you look at it that way; it’s no wonder we had erosion. Such poor quality soil could certainly not be expected to support plant growth.”
As has been reported in BioCycle (the most recent article appeared in July 2003), TxDOT has found that using compost to improve soil quality results in “getting grass established more quickly, avoiding erosion and saving us money in terms of added maintenance,” adds Cogburn. “We avoid having contractors come back and redo the soil and seed. We’re doing it right the first time. Using compost has replaced the old methods.” Texas, with 79,000 miles of state-maintained roadways, has become the world’s largest end user of compost, to the tune of about 400,000 cy annually.
Texas state officials were impressed by the performance of the pilot projects, Patton reports. “They’re not getting heavy vegetation from what we seeded because we’ve been in a drought. But they can’t believe these blankets look basically the same as when they were put down 15 months ago.” The Highway 54 blankets have survived two 50-mile-per-hour wind storms and one storm with gusts of over 100 m.p.h., in March, 2003. The side-by-side comparison has been an effective selling device, Patton notes. “Where the conventional straw-mulch seeding was put down, it looks like a parking lot, but our blanket is still there.”
In December 2003, Sierra demonstrated its compost to New Mexico DOT officials with three successful pilot projects. In all three cases, the compost was laid on slopes facing either due west or directly into the prevailing southwestern winds. The company uses an Express Blower truck to apply compost blankets. “They’ve held up really well,” Patton reports. One pilot involved reseeding following a four-lane expansion of New Mexico Highway 285, south of Clines Corners. The area treated had little to no vegetation and was beginning to erode severely. Another pilot project is on Interstate 25, south of Santa Fe, in an area that experienced severe erosion, with some rills in excess of 2-feet deep and 12 to 18-inches wide. “The rills were filled with compost/mulch first, then a 4-inch seeded blanket was applied,” says Patton. “The New Mexico DOT provided traffic signage and a large loader to help with the roughly 100 cy application.”
This summer, the state DOT plans to use Sierra’s compost for erosion control in two five-mile stretches a few miles from Ruidoso. Compost blankets will be installed along state Highway 48 and U.S. Highway 70, in place of “check dams,” according to Colleen Vaughan, a highway environmentalist for the New Mexico DOT. “We’re following the lead of Texas. They’ve gotten pretty good results with compost.” Adds Patton: “Even if we don’t get the seeding to grow in as it has in Texas, we’ll at least be providing something on the surface to stabilize what soil is there and decrease the amount of erosion.”
As outlined in the new compost specification from the New Mexico DOT, Sierra is providing two types of compost, determined by screen sizing. For Class I Erosion Control/Revegetation Compost, Sierra uses a 2-inch screen to produce “a much woodier product to hold up in wind and rain,” he notes. “It’s harder to wash away.” The same material is used for compost filter berms. For roadside erosion control blankets, Patton uses a 2-inch depth for areas with a 3-to-1 slope or less. A 4-inch blanket is used for anything steeper. SCI’s Class II Special Use Compost is screened to a half-inch and is used in plant bedding, root balls and other landscape applications.

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