Loss of grant ends SLO County’s chipping program

Vegetation chipping services that have been provided at no cost to San Luis Obispo County residents won’t be available next year, after the county lost a federal block grant it has received for nearly a decade.

The local chipping program, which has been funded by a grant from the U.S. Forest Service every two years since 2008, has been a tool in helping residents clear their properties of dry brush to make them more fire-safe.

The grant allowed local fire agencies to chip down pregathered dead and dying brush and disperse it on the property as an alternative to residents burning or transporting it to a green-waste disposal facility or landfill.

“This program has been very helpful as an alternative to burning it, which can be dangerous, and many people don’t know how to transport it properly or safely,” said Dan Turner, manager of the county’s Fire Safe Council, “but there’s always been a disclaimer that it is dependent on our ability to (obtain) the grant.”

That is now the problem. The nonprofit Fire Safe Council, which assists local agencies with grant writing, was denied a grant of about $200,000 to provide those services after March 2016, when the current grant expires.

Local agencies are now notifying residents that they are essentially on their own to dispose of the green waste, which fire officials encourage residents to do ahead of the fire season.

The U.S. Forest Service issues block grants to states for chipping services in two-year cycles. Last year, the California Fire Safe Council received $4 million to administer to counties for their individual programs, Turner said.

San Luis Obispo County has been fortunate, he said, having received close to the maximum county award — $200,000 — every cycle since 2008.

The chipping grant is one of a handful of large grants regularly obtained and administered by the local Fire Safe Council, Turner said, and the organization already has begun the process of applying to reinstate the program in late 2017.

The program has been a useful resource for rural county residents, as most cities and unincorporated communities prohibit the burning of vegetation on private property for fire safety and air pollution control purposes.

The program was popular in Atascadero, one of the few communities to allow backyard burning, Fire Capt. Bill White said. Given the large acreage of many rural Atascadero properties, safe defensive clearing is a cumbersome process and burning or transporting it presents other hazards, he said.

But like other cities, Atascadero does not have general funding for a chipping program and is now awaiting word, expected late next year, on whether funding will be restored.

For information on chipping or other fire hazard reduction services available in your community, contact your local fire agency.