A ball and chain is not always a bad thing

At least not when it is used to reduce a fire hazard

ball and chain vegetation management fire hazard

This image posted on Twitter by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, reminded me of when I was involved with a ball and chain operation one winter on the Sitton Peak project on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California in the early 1970s.

The objective is to rip out or crush brush in order to reduce the wildfire hazard. It can be used to create a fuel break in lighter brush, or knock down heavier brush to make it easier and safer to conduct a prescribed fire.

When I was the contracting officer’s representative (COR) on the project a large dozer pulled about 100 to 200 feet of anchor chain that weighed 40 to 80 pounds per link. At the far end of the chain was a Navy surplus steel ball, a float, about five or six feet in diameter, that had been used with an anti-submarine net. The float was designed to support a net made of steel cable that was stretched across the mouth of a harbour or a strait for protection against submarines. A seven-mile long net was in place across the entrance to San Francisco Bay on December 7, 1941.

Anti-submarine net floats
Anti-submarine net and floats. US Navy photo
anti-submarine net
U.S. Navy

When the system was used on the Sitton Peak project we found that the ball needed to be heavier, so we filled it with water. That didn’t last long because the ball led a hard life, constantly being dragged across the ground and over rocks. The water leaked out through gouges in the steel. We later experimented with other materials inside the ball, including gravel, that were retained for a longer period of time.

Landscape architects liked the appearance of a chained fuel break better than those constructed by a dozer blade because it left some vegetation and a feathered edge — a more natural shape with fewer straight lines. As the dozer pulled the assembly, the chain encountered variable resistance and would temporarily get hung up on a rock or a heavy brush patch. If the dozer was driving along a ridge top, this would cause the ball to traverse up and down the slope, leaving a zig-zag or irregular edge.

When used on flat ground, the ball is positioned and then the dozer drives in circles around it.

With the brush crushed, close to the ground, and later dried out, it can then be treated with prescribed fire that burns less intensely than standing live brush in the summer.

A ball and chain is not exactly a light-hand-on-the-land system. There is serious soil and vegetation disturbance, so before considering the method, any sensitive plants, animals, and artifacts need to be carefully evaluated.

Back in 2009 I wrote about a misadventure that involved the dozer we used on the Sitton Peak project. It became seriously stuck in mud while “walking” back from the project on a dirt road. Four trucks that came to rescue the dozer also got stuck in the same area. It was one of those incidents where rescuers became victims. The article has photos I took of the FUBAR incident.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

6 thoughts on “A ball and chain is not always a bad thing”

  1. Thanks for the history lesson, Bill. What’s old is new again. I do recall that this technique was pretty effective but as you say, not so easy on the land – and it was really tough on the dozer. Sure wish the researchers and industry could develop a cost effective way to harvest the chaparral to make compressed pellets for creating energy. The pellets were being made back in the early 80s but they didn’t have the industry to make it financially viable.

  2. Even farther back in history BLM, the old Grazing Service used a method called chaining to clear land to enhance the growth of better forage for livestock. Surplus naval anchor chain was strung between two bulldozers and dragged across the land tearing out what ever grew and then the area was seeded with livestock friendly grasses. I discovered this while a student at Colorado State going through the old photo archives and then finding a section of US Navy anchor chain at a remote BLM station years later.

  3. This is were I met you Bill, being assigned to the BD crew while I was on Project Transition from the Marine Corps back in the day. Just want to say “thanks” again to you and the rest of the crew who started to show me the ropes and got me started on a real good career path. Good times! remember them well.

  4. Earlier in my career, I was actually able to do an old school chaining project using 2 D-8’s to drag the chain. I had my doubts about the treatment, but it was actually fairly light on the land. The thing that is important is to do the chaining when their is adequate moisture in the ground to uproot the trees, rather than breaking the tree trunks. In our case we were restoring meadows that had been encroached by Alligator Juniper, so uprooting the trees was important to prevent resprouting. Using a ball at the end of the chain seems a little unstable. But it’s great to see old techniques being revitalized.

  5. L.kosup
    Never know how many former ball and chainers are out there. I remember well the dozer becoming bogged down in the cieniga on the south end of the Trabuco dist. I was one of the secondary responders to that scene with Eric Peto and Jose Perez. The project required more than what we brought to the gathering. On another subject, l was COR on the ball and chain project on the North Main Divide. Someone preceeded me the year l had the reins. I think they started on Sierra Peak headed south. My crew started at Skyline Drive and the Main Divide. Aka the Johnson Ranch. Our objective was to reach Pleasants Peak. It seemed a long way off. Our dozer had a brush blade on the front which looked like a big rake. When the ball was down for repairs it was used to grub and pile brush on the broad ridge tops for later burning. Some of my crew were Bob Nolan, Pat Schrefler, Bob”Red”Wilson (RIP), and Bob Drown. I had heard the following year that the ball separated from the chain in one of the canyons on the East side. I left the district in the late summer of 1974 for Lincoln NF in R3. My winter with the ball and chain must have been 72 or 73. I don’t know when the project ended or what end of the district it started. There are other guys out there who worked on this project and follow this site on and off. Great site Bill.

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