When Gene Kodama became South Carolina’s state forester in 2008, it was obvious to him that the heavy equipment needs of the state forestry agency were not being met. Addressing those needs became a priority to him, though it seemed an almost impossible challenge coming as it did at the onset of a severe recession.
However, daunting or not, the challenge was met. An upgrade of the equipment fleet has begun. Due to much scurrying around and lobbying by Kodama and allies in the effort, the agency’s crawler machinery dating back 25 years will be systematically retired over the next six years.
Cat Wins Bid
Caterpillar is the initial big winner in the fleet upgrade. Cat dealer Blanchard Machinery Company, which covers the state with 14 locations, entered the winning bid to supply the initial 10 dozers. The sale to the Forestry Commission was the fruit of a concerted effort by Caterpillar and its South Carolina dealer to compete in the state’s forestry marketplace.
“Realizing how important the forestry industry is and what good potential there was for a partnership, Cat started configuring the equipment the way the forestry officials needed it to be,” said Allison Beck, Caterpillar global construction and infrastructure representative in Charlotte, N.C. “The dealer also had a big part in this.”
Blanchard escorted forestry commission representatives to Caterpillar’s design, testing and manufacturing center in Clayton, N.C., where the machine was demonstrated and safety and performance questions were answered.
“The bottom line was the price,” said Brian Smith, Blanchard’s territory manager, “but we had to get them [Forestry Commission members] comfortable with the tractor before we could even bid effectively.”
Beck said the goal for Caterpillar was to establish a long-term relationship with the commission. While that might sound relatively simple, to accomplish it required many months of conversations.
“Basically we wanted to get all the ducks in a row,” Beck explained in mid-June at the conclusion of the successful effort. “We wanted to work with the Forestry Commission to make sure we identified all their needs, to offer to provide them what training they might need, to give factory visits, to work out the major issues in advance and really establish trust between the two parties.
“At Caterpillar, we pride ourselves in working with a customer, in establishing a relationship and maintaining it after a bidding process ends.”
At Cat’s Clayton facility, Joel Fritts got involved in helping make the sale. Fritts is a member of Caterpillar’s small tractor production group and credits Blanchard representatives with being instrumental in answering questions to the satisfaction of the forestry agency visitors.
Configured D5K Units
The 10 Cat dozers selected by the commission are D5K units with a package of configurations that enables the crawler to be operated safely in a wildfire environment. The D5 is a 96-hp, 10.5-ton (9.5 t) crawler outfitted in this case with variable pitch, angle-tilt blade and a two-bottom plow for creating firebreaks; two of the plows are permanently affixed to a pair of tractors and the other plows will be pulled from a drawbar.
The dozer’s 26-in (66 cm) wide tracks create less ground pressure than do typical 20-in. (51 cm) tracks; this feature is important in South Carolina, because the state’s loamy soils and low-lying areas tend to bog down big iron. Each dozer was built with electrical wiring and hydraulic lines covered by a fire-resistant material, and with the machine’s radiator protected by a heavy-duty grille. Extra lighting is featured and a fuel shut-off valve is situated inside the cab for extra operator control in the event of a rupture at a calamitous time.
A HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arresting) filter in the operator’s cab maintains an acceptable environment for the operator in smoky conditions. The air-conditioned cab itself is a notable feature: The D5K dozers are the first in the South Carolina forestry fleet to have enclosed operator’s cabs. In fact, South Carolina’s forestry equipment operators were the only ones in the entire southeast to not have protective cabs.
“A cab protects the equipment operator from debris and embers that are blowing around in a wildfire, and protects them from smoke,” Kodama said. “We’ve had a number of operators suffer smoke inhalation, which can be life threatening. The third danger is heat radiation.”
In previous “burnovers” experienced by the agency when a fast-spreading fire overtook a dozer or turned on it unexpectedly, the operator bailed out and sought shelter in special reflective tents. Such situations are extremely hazardous.
“Now,” Kodama said of having dozers with enclosed cabs, “if the fuel [timber and underbrush] content of the scene is not really heavy, the operator can turn off all systems and sit in there with some protection from radiant energy and survive for quite a little while. We know it works, because there is considerable evidence from Florida that when operators don’t have access to enclosed cabs, there are injuries and deaths.”
The D5 dozer units — and D3 and D4 models — are manufactured at a Caterpillar plant in Japan. Six of the purchased machines already have arrived in the port at Charleston, S.C., according to Kodama, and the remaining units are expected momentarily.
Rebuilding the Fleet
The new units represent a big first step in returning South Carolina’s fire-fighting equipment fleet to a satisfactory state of readiness. Of forestry’s 134 manned operating units, 60 are older than the recommended replacement age of 15 years. About 45 of the dozers were procured in 1996, the last time the commission had significant capital funding, with other purchases coming irregularly when money happened to be available.
Two recessions disrupted purchases between 1996 and the present. Additionally, the commission’s budget has been halved since 2008 — a period in which the use of forestry resources has steadily increased, along with demands for forestry personnel and equipment.
When Kodama assumed his role at the agency, he immediately recognized the funding and operational crisis. After making numerous fruitless trips to Washington, D.C., in search of help, as well as exploring budgeting approaches by other state forestry agencies, he went to the South Carolina legislature last year with an urgent appeal.
“To meet its statutory mandate, the agency must be returned to an acceptable equipment replacement cycle, fill vacancies and transfer personnel in critical positions from temporary federal and non-recurring funds back to stable funding,” he wrote the state budget office director. He reminded the state officials of some economic facts of life in South Carolina:
• The forestry industry, which the commission supports, is the number one employer (90,000 jobs) and number one wage provider ($4.1 billion) among all manufacturing segments in the state
• Forestry products are the number one cash crop ($876 million), with $1.3 billion in annual exports
• Timberlands cover two-thirds (12.3 million acres) of South Carolina and the agency is the designated protector of all that acreage
• For every dollar invested by the state in the industry, the industry produces $1,800 of economic impact
Kodama asked for an immediate infusion of cash to begin the process of upgrading equipment and personnel. The lawmakers responded with some $3 million for the current fiscal year, from which the commission extracted enough money to buy the first 10 Caterpillar dozers along with tractor trailer units to haul the machines. Another $3.5 million will be available on July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, when a second round of bidding will ensue to supply another dozen or so dozer units.
Perhaps more important, the state forester also proposed to legislators that a steady stream of funding be created to finish the job. What he had discovered in his scouting around the nation for solutions was that the Texas timberland agency has a steady revenue source from taxes applied to insurance premiums. South Carolina lawmakers followed the example of Texas legislators and tapped South Carolina insurance tax revenue to help restore the forestry agency to a healthier condition.
Lawmakers approved a bill stipulating that for five years beginning in 2013, 2.25 percent of premiums paid for insurance policies will be funneled into the agency’s coffers, a percentage that is expected to plump the account by about $3 million a year. So for at least six more years, the agency will have $3 million for capital and personnel expenditure.
“It made sense to do it that way,” Kodama argued, “because using the collected money for insurance-related purposes ties in with what we do. We reduce risk for many homeowners in rural areas adjacent to timberland.”
Consequently, with a second round of equipment bidding coming this summer and continuing for at least five more years, heavy equipment dealers and manufacturers are on their toes. Because the future offerings must meet Tier IV interim emission standards, the bids will vary somewhat from that for the contract just awarded. Even so, Caterpillar officials are hoping to make the cut again.
“We are hopeful, yes, but it never is in the bag,” Beck said from her Charlotte office. “It depends somewhat on the competition. We’ll just keep trying to meet customers’ needs and to do what they ask.”
Singular Firefighter Role
Though in South Carolina the state owns just five percent of forested land—and the federal government another five percent—the state forestry agency is the designated protector of all timberland, including the 16 percent owned by corporations and 74 percent held by some 88,000 individual landowners. This umbrella role is offered by the state because the trees are a towering economic resource to South Carolina.
“That doesn’t mean the agency sends out bills after fighting a fire on private sector land. It does mean that it cooperates closely with local fire departments,” said Kodama. “They take care of structures and we take care of wild land. We don’t have the equipment to do the work of fire departments and vice versa.”
This partnership comes into play many times during a typical year. The agency responds to between 2,000 and 3,000 wildfires a year, many of which threaten commercial and residential buildings situated in the middle or on the edge of forest stands. A notably bad blaze occurred in 2009 along a highway in Horry County. It destroyed or damaged almost 200 residences with an overall cost of some $50 million.
Though fires are the most destructive threat to square miles of trees and adjacent structures, other storms also bring a response from the agency, including hurricanes, tornados and manmade disasters such as hazardous spills. These responses all are mandated by the agency’s Incident Management language.
The U.S. Forestry Service helps support the effort by contributing some $2 million annually to the funding pool.