A Road Warriors crew prepares to load one of many brush piles collected into a 40-yard debris bin.

This BenitoLink Community Opinion column was contributed by San Juan Bautista residents Michael Wolfe and Richard Pitschka. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors. BenitoLink invites all community members to share their ideas and opinions. By registering as a BenitoLink user in the top right corner of our home page and agreeing to follow our Terms of Use, you can write counter opinions or share your insights on current issues.


A group of San Juan Canyon residents, locally known as the Road Warriors, have been working off and on for the past two months removing brush, dry branches, and fallen trees from along the edges and sometimes from the middle of San Juan Canyon Road. The Road Warriors’ primary aims are to make the road safer for evacuation and to improve the access for firefighters during a wildfire.

The amount of potential wildfire fuel removed by the Road Warriors was equal to about what could be piled in the beds of 80 pickup trucks. So much work was possible because the Road Warriors had a convenient place to dispose of the material they collected—in a huge dumpster stationed near San Juan Canyon Road on a site made available by San Juan Oaks Golf Club.

The dumpster, actually a 40-yard debris bin, was provided for free as a public service by Recology, the waste management company contracted by San Benito County. In order to give canyon residents the opportunity to make a significant reduction of fuel along the canyon road, the company agreed not only to place a debris bin in the canyon, but to replace it with a second when filled.

Also contributing to the large amount of work done was the residents’ awareness of wildfire danger in San Juan Canyon. For many years Cal Fire had labeled San Juan Canyon one of its main concerns in San Benito County because of the thick vegetation, the number of households there, and the fact that there is only one narrow, winding public road leading out of the canyon.

This danger was great enough that when Gavin Newsom, as the newly- elected governor, asked Cal Fire to provide him with a list of high-priority fire-safety projects for immediate implementation, Cal Fire gave him 35 recommendations. Fuel reduction along San Juan Canyon Road was 4th highest on the list, and $290,000 in emergency funding was provided to do the job.

That funding, along with other money from Cal Fire’s operating budget, made a big difference. A dense tangle of thick brush, fallen branches, and dead and dying trees was transformed into a corridor of almost parklike appearance. Cal Fire had done its part. Now they said it was up to the residents and the county to maintain the fuel break.

This turned out to be a daunting challenge. New trees and brush quickly began replacing what had been removed from 11-mile-long San Juan Canyon Road, and older trees weakened by the drought were toppling over at an alarming rate.

“Maintaining the fuel break along the canyon road is not like Earth Day, where you pick up garbage once a year,” says Louis Rayas, Road Warrior stalwart. “It’s more like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ve got to keep at it, and when you finish the job, you start over.”

The trouble is that a round trip to the county dump from San Juan Canyon takes about two and a half hours. Add to that the dumping fee and the cost of gas, and you’ve got some serious disincentives for the volunteer worker. Recology’s dumpster reduced an overwhelming task to something local residents could imagine tackling.

Placing debris bins in San Juan Canyon as a way to help residents maintain the fuel break was first suggested by County Supervisors Kollin Kosmicki and Bob Tiffany, but no one was sure the idea would make a noticeable difference. Recology, however, felt the idea had potential and agreed to help test it when asked by the San Benito Fire Safe Council.

Before Recology made the debris bin available, community members were already in the habit of cutting up and pushing to the side most of the trees that fell on the canyon road because they knew the county’s road crew was stretched too thin to be counted on for timely action. Sometimes people took away sections of the trunks that could be used for firewood, but the branches almost always were left drying at the side of the road. And a tree that fell near but not on the road was usually ignored. Left unchecked, the build-up of flammable material could lead to real problems.

Did Recology’s debris bin make a noticeable difference? “Absolutely,” says Suzanne Pelkey, board member of the canyon’s fledgling Firewise Community. “The debris bin gave the community a practical way to do what was needed. Four trees that fell on the road during the trial were cut up and carried to the dumpster. Other debris that had been accumulating for more than a year was also removed. We need to find a way to keep this program going.”

“I’d hate to lose what’s been accomplished so far,” said Richard Pitschka, chairperson for the San Benito Fire Safe Council. “The 80 pickup loads of dry material removed from along the sides of the road was a real contribution to public safety. That the material was hauled away by Recology to be chipped and composted and not dumped in a landfill was an added benefit.”

Noting the many hours of volunteer labor inspired by Recology’s debris bin, long-time canyon resident Paul Benoit concluded, “I can’t imagine a more cost-effective way to get this job done.”