Last Nov. 8 at 6:30am, wildland firefighters were called to battle a blaze that had sparked near the tiny rural community of Pulga in Butte County California. By 8:00am, propelled by gale-force winds roaring off the Sierra Nevada that sent flying embers leap-frogging westward across seven miles of varied terrain, the fire had reached the town of Paradise. By 10:45am, satellite images showed that half of Paradise was already fully ablaze, its buildings fueling the conflagration. In just four hours, the Camp Fire had become the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, resulting in 86 civilian deaths and nearly 14,000 homes and five public schools incinerated.
As metropolitan communities expand into once sparsely populated areas of the West, more homes and buildings—structures, in firefighting terminology—are in the path of wildfires, where human development and wildlands intermingle intricately. Federal, state, and tribal partner firefighting agencies, long the mainstays of wildland protection and fire containment, have had to scramble to keep up with the need for more firefighters and equipment, in part to defend these structures. A century of forest-fire suppression, multi-year regional drought, and climate-change effects are creating a perfect storm for destructive mega-wildfires in the modern landscape.
With increasing frequency, firefighting agencies are enlisting help from other jurisdictions to defend structures when fires erupt. Oregon, for one, sent fifteen strike teams comprising approximately 300 firefighters and 75 rigs of varying sizes to the Camp Fire response. Some 4,700 firefighters from seventeen states and an array of agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, California prisons, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many others partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to battle last year’s California fires. The process of bringing in firefighters from other states and jurisdictions isn’t instantaneous. It involves a complex system of communications on both sides of the request; the Oregon contingent wasn’t officially mobilized until about 30 hours after the fire broke out.
Structural firefighters and wildfire fighters were once two quite separate groups of responders, but this is changing throughout the West. Nowadays structural firefighters are training to join both sides of the battle. Jim Spell, in a 2014 article for Fire and Rescue1 stated, “Getting their ‘red card’ and training with Pulaski tools and shovels are the beginning steps of getting into a segment of firefighting that keeps growing larger and more intense with every fire season.”
Structural firefighter Pat McAbery of Gresham, Oregon Fire Department near Portland, was deployed as a member of the multi-agency response to the Camp Fire. Speaking to Oregon Master Naturalist volunteers recently, he described the differences between the types of firefighters this way: “[We] Structural firefighters have a short attention span. You call us, we go. We set up to fight a fire at one building, and we stay until the fire is out.”
Wildfire fighters must take a more deliberative approach, given the complexities of wildland fire spread. “They collect information like topography, wind direction and speed, weather predictions, and likely direction of fire movement,” McAbery explained. “They take these into account before they deploy personnel to the firelines. Tactics and equipment are very different. They set up miles ahead of the fire to build their lines.” (If you have 20 minutes to watch this training video from the National Fire Protection Association, it will be time well spent to learn about the complexities of firefighting on the wildland/urban interface.)
During a deployment, “ground-pounders” as McAbery admiringly referred to wildfire fighters, are camping, eating, sleeping, working 16-hour shifts or longer for weeks at a time on the firelines, out of view of the TV cameras. Structural teams, on the other hand, work 12 to 24-hour shifts, depending the assignment, as in Paradise, where crews searching for dead bodies were given stints of 12-hours. Structural firefighters sleep in centrally located tents or motels and are treated to applause and meals by locals who see them around town at the end of their shift. “Structural firefighters get all the glory because people see us in town having dinner. Wildfire fighters are still out doing all the hard work digging lines, cutting brush and trees on steep terrain,” McAbery said. Asked about the relationships between the two groups, he acknowledged there is some tension, adding, “Frankly, we’re stepping in to their world and I’m sure that some of them don’t like it. But I’d say that the relationship between the two worlds is pretty good. I think they are getting used to seeing us more and we’re getting better at the wildland game.” He feels that an attitude of mutual respect has grown in recent years, maybe due to the increased need for teamwork.
In a November 2018 interview for Fire and Rescue1, Scottsdale Fire Department firefighter Blake Miller praised the unseen labors of the Camp Fire wildfire responders. “When we got here they were three to four days on the fire lines without sleep,” he said. Providing respite for the local first responders is a high priority for those arriving on scene from farther distances. All are in agreement that resident and firefighter safety is the prime concern. “The land will come back,” Miller said, “It’s just [about] safety at all times.”
Westerners must find ways to thank our unsung wildfire heroes. One way we could do this would be to bring their salaries to parity with those of structural firefighters. A Bureau of Labor Statistics map shows that metropolitan firefighters in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Washington earn an average salary of $55,000-75,000 annually. In comparison, a wildfire fighter in the US Forest Service may make from $26,000 to $49,700, depending on position and experience, with a 25% hazard pay increase during deployment. Firefighters hired by private agencies may barely break minimum wage, starting at about $16 per hour, the equivalent of $33,000 per year if it were year-round, but these are strictly seasonal jobs.
Every westerner is affected by wildfire, and owes a great debt to our firefighters from both sides of the urban/wildland interface. Shouldn’t we support them and express our deep gratitude by calling public attention to the salary gap and urging federal and state lawmakers to find ways to close it?
Part 1: A 40-hour week of volunteering for Mother Nature
Exactly one year ago, I made a 3000-mile road trip from New England to Oregon, teardrop camper JT in tow (aka James Trailer), wondering how on earth I would cultivate new roots as I retired and transplanted myself into this unfamiliar new territory. My daughter-in-law wisely suggested I take the online Oregon Master Naturalist (OMN) course offered by OSU. It seemed a good place to start building a sense of place and community and meet kindred outdoor spirits. The course is packed with Oregon lore—geological and ecological histories, mind-blowing stories of accreted exotic terranes and eons of volcanic roiling, eight vastly different eco-regions from rain-forested coastal range to arid mountainous desert, and a flood of information about species of concern beyond my brain’s absorption capacity. Cougars and beavers and birds, oh my!
The online course was followed by 6 days of field learning last June. For my fieldwork, I chose the East Cascades Ecoregion, the dry side of the Cascades in central Oregon, often called (imprecisely, I learned) the “high desert.” Caravanning our group around the region, the profs showed us the rimrock lava flows of a bygone caldera (quite likely the hot spot now located under Yellowstone NP); areas of riparian restorations where trout and salmon are just beginning to retrace their ancient migratory runs; a ranch where the owner and OSU are measuring effects of juniper removal on the water table; a recently burned ponderosa pine forest; and a cathedral-like wood of lodgepole pines and Douglas fir where I contemplated a sapsucker’s coming and going from its its brood of chicks in a cavity high in a snag. (Photo credit)
The final step in completing the OMN requirements is to perform 40 hours of service for any of the hundreds of Oregon organizations with outdoor missions. This can include performing office tasks for conservation organizations, doing citizen science by counting animal sightings and tracks, transporting migrating fish around river barriers, removing migratory barrier fences or installing wildlife-friendly fences on rangeland, yanking out invasive weeds, or planting native trees and shrubs on a degraded section of a stream.
Eager to complete the OMN journey, I decided to make my 40+ hours of service a “full time job” for nine days. I concocted a brew of four volunteer jobs, and trundled JT from Portland, across Mt. Hood to Bend, and then through and around the Ochoco Mountains, to begin a new friendship with the high desert. The next entries chronicle this nine-day volunteer expedition, dubbed by one weed-pulling volunteer I met along the way as “Choose your own adventure.”
Part 2. ONDA-sponsored Wild and Scenic Short-Film Festival
I couldn’t sleep for several nights before setting out on this circuit, fretting about how to handle a cougar attack or a flat tire on back country roads. [Cougar image credit] So I opted to start my volunteering week at a Friday film festival in civilized downtown Bend, where I could call Triple-A, and the only likely cougar sightings might be divorcees flirting with snowboarders. Where to park (and sleep in) JT in town near the theater? True to the laid-back Bend vibe, a friend from my OMN field course invited me to park in her driveway for the 2 nights in Bend. I plugged into her garage outlet, and had my own 2-star movable guest room.
About ten of us volunteered at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival sponsored by Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). We took membership applications and donations, and peddled raffle tickets. Caelin, our ONDA staffer, also treated us to excellent pizza and a drink on the house.
ONDA’s mission is “to protect, defend and restore Oregon’s high desert.” ONDA envisions “millions of acres of beautiful and ecologically vital public lands permanently protected, home to diverse populations of wildlife, and available for future generations to enjoy….[providing] the public with outstanding opportunities to experience backcountry solitude.” How awesome is that?
The evening event presented 10 short films about a wide array of wild and scenic adventurers, including: a river explorer, two self-described badass Nepalese women climbing in the Himalayas, two cartographers mapping unexplored Patagonia (Arg.) Park, a raptor migration corridor, and a compelling wacky 4-minute (unofficial) History of the National Parks. [Go on, click the link— I guarantee you will want to watch it more than once.] The theater filled its 350 seats for two showings. The thing that struck me most about this crowd of folks was their warmth. I’m accustomed membership tables where people scurry by, avoiding eye contact, afraid of being hit up for money. But these folks came up and chatted, opened their wallets, and asked about ONDA’s work. One woman opted to pay the full membership amount rather than the event-discounted rate. That’s who ONDA draws. Lovers of the outdoors, adventurers, conservationists, environmental activists—all generous with their time, money, and desire to share stewardship responsibility of wondrous spaceship earth.
Hours worked at the film fest: 7
An enjoyable, cougar-free night! ONDA and its staff get two thumbs up for this event!
Part 3. Camp Polk Meadow, Sisters, Oregon—invasive weed pulling with Deschutes Land Trust
The Deschutes Land Trust (DLT), also headquartered in Bend, sponsors regular Weed Warrior trips to conservation areas near Bend. Have you ever tried to keep 100 square feet of garden free of weeds in late summer? I usually give up around mid-July. But the undaunted DLT Weed Warriors make it their mission three Saturdays per month to pull invasive and noxious weeds from targeted sections of the land trust’s 9000+ acres of conservation lands. Yikes—that’s like 14 square miles.
The DLT’s mission is “to work cooperatively with landowners to conserve land for wildlife, scenic views and local communities.” The Trust conserves and stewards land and riversides that meet these selection criteria.
Five of us carpooled about 30 minutes north of Bend to weed the Camp Polk Meadow section of meadow alongside the Wychus Creek, a river of special concern to the DLT.
While there are a number of noxious weeds there, we focused only on the seed stalks of the common mullein weed, Verbascum thapsus. You’ve seen this weed everywhere—it has a dozen or more common names, my favorites being old man’s flannel, velvet plant (both due to its fuzzy leaves) and Quaker rouge, allegedly because Quaker women used it to provoke a pink irritation-rash on their cheeks in lieu of using makeup. Mullein has a 2-year growth cycle, like parsley. The first year it makes a fuzzy rosette of leaves, and the second year it goes into reproduction gear. As instructed, I clipped off the torch-like seed stalks, carefully bagged them, and pulled first-year stalkless plants from the ground.
Sisyphus would have been proud of us for persisting. Every stalk we bagged apparently prevented some 100-240,000 seeds from self-sowing. Still, it was disheartening to imagine next year’s crop. Any stalk that got past us could spread 100,000 or more seeds, which are said to be viable for 35 or more years. Rats. I think my rock just rolled down the hill again. And yet, the Weed Warrior teams persist!
A little googling about mullein taught me that this weed has some folksy uses, like cowboy toilet paper, shoe insulation, and friction fire starting—all useful in an armageddon scenario. Imagine how handy it would be having natural rouge growing all about us if Mary Kay doesn’t make it through nuclear winter. But fuzzy skin-irritating toilet paper? I’ll pass—I expect FEMA will toss us all a roll or two of paper towels.
Noxious weeds are generally described as invasive non-native plants, which establish and reproduce quickly when introduced, threatening or causing harm to environment (wildlife habitat), economy (crops, livestock), or human health. The Pacific Northwest Weed Guide doesn’t list mullein as “noxious,” but the DLT has good reason to remove it from this floodplain. The DLT began restoring this meadow in 2009, in order to “restore and enhance high quality riparian wetland habitat along the stream corridor.” They began by revegetating the creek corridor to stabilize the river banks and to mimic the native plant species and composition that may have historically occurred in Camp Polk Meadow. The richer and more diverse the plant community, the better chance of outcompeting invasive weeds. Diversity also enhances native wildlife habitat, and may contribute to lower stream temperature, which is critical to the survival of trout and salmon. The plantings list is quite similar to the ONDA riparian restoration plants (you can read about them in part 5), and includes trees, shrubs, and herbaceous wetland and riparian species including sedges, rushes, grasses, and forbs.
Mullein has “naturalized,” i.e. grows wild now, in the lower 48, Canada, Europe, Australia…from sea level to 8000 ft elevation. It colonizes disturbed areas quickly: roadsides, abandoned industrial sites, waste areas, river banks and corridors, forest cuts, scrublands, juniper and scrub oak savannas. Most importantly, because it is so prolific (remember the 200K-seed stalks?) it pushes out native grasses and shrubs, and creates the reason for our search and destroy mission in this painstakingly nativized meadow.
As Camus concluded in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a [person’s] heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The long-time Weed Warriors are every bit as persistent as Sisyphus, and by Zeus, they do look happy!
Volunteer hours worked with DLT: 3
Another two thumbs up experience.
Part 4. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
From Bend to Dayville’s Fish House Inn and RV, where I camped for the next 4 nights, is a 2-1/2 hour drive, which I made in 7 hours—on purpose. Stopping in the Painted Hills near Mitchell is mandatory! Only 1.75 hours from Bend, don’t miss this amazing unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, or JODA, in National Park Service shorthand.
When you go, allow 2 to 3 hours for meandering on all 5 short loops in the Painted Hills, and taking lots of pictures. At three of the loops through the rainbow colored hills, I crossed paths with Park Ranger Michelle, who I learned was the same person with whom I had been emailing to arrange the week’s volunteer work. She recognized me by my trailer; apparently there are not many teardrop campers wandering around JODA in mid October. We made a plan to meet at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, aka, JODA Visitor Center, the next morning when my volunteer work would begin.
Michelle oriented me to the visitor center and the fossil bed basics—and turned me loose to wander the museum to get the gestalt. Who knew that from 50 to 5 million years ago a panoply of now-extinct mammals—evolutionary predecessors of felines, canids, cameloids, and horses—roamed the volcanic cauldron of what is now central Oregon? Or that the fossils they left behind, buried in the layers of a multitude of volcanic eruptions of ash, lava, and whatever else volcanoes spew, provide such a complete evolutionary record that they are used as reference points by paleontologists world-wide studying the Tertiary, or the age of mammals? OK, the question is rhetorical. I’m sure lots of people knew. But until a week ago, I was not one of them. Still, I can’t get my head around the concept of “50 to 5 million years ago” or baffling words like “Tertiary.” But this is a place where paleontological science laboratory meets museum meets family friendly indoor-outdoor learning playground. I witnessed the “swearing in” of two eager Aussie 10-11 year old siblings as they worked the children’s activities to earn Junior Ranger status. Their wonderment helped put a new sense of awe in my steps through this extraordinary terrain.
As for my volunteer work at JODA, “work” is the wrong word. The next 4 days felt more like recreation than work. Michelle’s job includes running educational programs at the visitor center, for which she often uses fossil replicas made to look like the real ones, to give school groups hands-on experiences with them. To create the realistic look, she spends her spare time during slower winter months painting the replicas. She set me up with a table and latex paints and brushes, showed me some real fossils (in background of photo) to use for models, and let me channel my inner Georgia O’Keefe on the replicas.
I was happier than a clam at high tide! Second photo shows some of my final products.
The other job I helped with was reviewing a ’90s era hands-on fossil curriculum that JODA sends out to schools for use in earth science and biology classes learning about evolution and how paleontologists piece clues together. The kit contains 16 fossil casts of various ages of horse heads and teeth through their evolution during the 45m years of the age of mammals. Michelle and I discussed how the curriculum could be updated to reflect the Next Generation Science Standards in wide use nationwide today. We planted the seed of an idea for a summer teachers’ workshop to redesign the lessons in light of today’s classroom needs. Pure fun, bringing my 40+ years of teaching experience to this volunteer assignment.
There is so much more to write about this place—but it’s better to go see for yourself! Another MUST DO when you go is to walk the 1-mile Blue Basin trail near the visitor center. Absolutely eye-popping! (Yes, the hills really are aqua-colored.) And you can’t miss Picture Gorge as you drive through the valley—it’s equally jaw dropping.
Folks don’t usually want others to see the skeletons in their closets, but at JODA, they are the main event!
Volunteer hours worked at JODA: 24
Part 5. ONDA Riparian Restoration Work Camp Trip
My week-long volunteer circuit around the Ochoco Mountains included a two-day work camp sponsored by the Oregon Natural Desert Association, or ONDA. Circling the Ochocos clockwise, I stopped often to marvel at the incongruity of a “desert river” and found the gravel turnoff at a milepost somewhere between East-and-West-of-the-Hinterlands. The last 4.5 miles brought a 30-minute crawl over hills, gullies, and rangeland between rocky buttes. Two range-roaming cows were unimpressed with my rig. Just when I was certain I was lost, I spotted the tents and cars of my fellow volunteers, and maneuvered JT into the encampment.
Seventeen of us met on a Thursday evening at this crackling dry, juniper-studded field along the South Fork Crooked River. After dinner, we had a fireless (due to a statewide burn ban) “fireside chat” about the next two days’ work, then hustled under a billion stars to warm sleeping bags as the temperature plummeted. Jefferson Jacobs, the ONDA staffer who led this trip, is well known among ONDA volunteers for fireside discussions, where he shares his considerable knowledge of the high desert region, its history, peoples, and ecosystems. His story-telling reputation is what prompted me to sign up for this trip, and the stories were as delightful as predicted.
By 6:00 a.m. the next morning, Jefferson had brewed us the most delicious coffee I ever tasted. I suspect he has learned that this is the best—if not the only—way to entice people out of warm sleeping bags on a 15˚F morning. I also suspect that the temperature had something to do with how good the coffee tasted. At eight o’clock we gathered with shovels, work gloves, bag lunches and water bottles, and hiked through the frosty fields about a quarter mile to the day’s worksite in a grassy meadow by the river.
ONDA groups who preceded us earlier in the summer had prepped the area in two ways:
- On one trip they had built several welded wire-mesh fenced enclosures (approximately 20 or 30’ square), or exclosures in volunteer-lingo, because excluding deer and beaver is the only way to keep the young plants from being browsed to the ground in the critical first years while they get established. (as seen at right)
2. On another trip they built two beaver-dam-analogs a half mile apart (or BDAs, as seen at left), These obstructions across the river made of logs with intertwined willow twigs slow water flow and raise the adjacent floodplain water table, in this case, by two feet. The BDA will give this patchwork of creekside plantings a fighting chance of surviving the hot Oregon desert summers.
On this assignment, work meant work! Jefferson had lined up some 2,300 native saplings and shrubs for this crew to get in the ground: cottonwood, aspen, willow, alder, red-twig dogwood, elderberry, spirea, currant, and meadow wildflowers. We planted half at each of the two BDA locations. The second day a group of 20 or 30-something young recruits turbo-boosted the effort by lowering the average age of our group significantly. We called them the Riders of Rohan, from the epic scene in the Two Towers movie (Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy)—a team-building mythology instigated by Jefferson.
In one of our fireless chats, we learned why we were working in this particular place. This 3-mile stretch of the South Fork Crooked River is on a 1200-acre parcel owned by Otto Keller, who is keen on land conservation and restoration. He collaborates with ONDA and other partners to restore the South Fork Crooked River to some of its former ecological diversity. Together they have successfully removed several acres of juniper and repaired fences to prevent cattle trespass (a significant issue, especially when one tries to find ungrazed land to study the effects of grazing on ecosystems). The partnership is now knee-deep in riparian restoration—with hopes of bringing back a habitat that can support native denizens such as trout and beaver. Oregon once teemed with beaver, but trappers nearly eliminated them from their natural range throughout central Oregon. In 20 years, when these plantings have grown, it is hoped that they will provide the elements beavers need to build dams and trout need for shelter and spawning.
Jefferson was confident that this ragtag band of conservationists, ranging in age from 25 to 80 could get 2300 plants tucked into the ground in two 8-hour days. This was hard work, yet many of these folks keep coming back year after year to plant more sections of this meandering creek’s banks, and to check up on last year’s babies. Camaraderie buoyed this crew of shovel-wielding hole-diggers (2300 holes is a lot of digging) and trowel-bearing plant setters, and by dam—we did it!
Two very muddy thumbs up!
Volunteer hours worked: 16
Desert Biome description, plant and animal adaptations
by Eleanor Burke, originally posted July 2011
Desert biome covers about one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface. Deserts range from very hot and dry to very cold and dry (Antarctica can be considered a desert) with dryness being the defining characteristic. Most sources define the average annual rainfall at 15-20cm or less; if more, the rain occurs seasonally or unpredictably. The largest of the world’s hot/dry deserts occur fairly symmetrically above and below the equator, at or near the subtropical latitudes, approximately 30-35˚ N or S of the equator. Both are high-pressure zones of dry descending air masses. Seasonality varies with local geography, such as the leeward “rain shadow” of a mountain range, or its specific continental placement. Continue reading →
In September 2017 I closed one life chapter and began a new one. I retired from a 45-year career in public school teaching and administration, sold my house of 35 years in the Boston area, packed up my new tiny camper (James Trailer), and struck out to make a home in Oregon. With new surroundings and more time to devote to things I just feel like doing, I have been making mosaics and volunteering in outdoor settings (Oregon master Naturalist program, Oregon Master Gardeners program–neither of which is meant to imply that I have mastered anything in these areas.) I’m immersing myself in these programs as a way to begin to get my “sense of place” in this oh so very different region I now call home. One project I’ve begun is a mosaic series (disclaimer: right now it’s a series of ONE) on some animals of concern in the region, which are on the “Oregon Conservation Strategy Species” list. This is my first piece–not quite done, but nearly so.
The Western Burrowing Owl
This small owl (10″ long adult weighs only 6oz.) nests in burrows dug by prairie dogs and other burrowing mammals. It winters in the southwest US and Mexico, and migrates north to breed in open range and grasslands in central and western US. It nests in groups, with each nesting pair tending its clutch of 7-10 owlets, leaving only to catch insects and small rodents to feed them, and guarding the door of the burrow avidly. See this adorable video from Oregon Wild of a family unit in action. Its numbers are dropping, probably due to loss of habitat to farms, development, exurban encroachment. A May 2018 article in the NYT told the story of the feral cats being nurtured by Google employees, and their detrimental effect on nearby Burrowing Owl habitat in a wildlife reserve.
As this is my first piece in the series, it is a prototype of sorts, and I can’t guarantee it is fully accurate in size, form, and markings–but I tried to be true to the photos I was working from. Next up in the series: some cavity nesting birds from Oregon high desert/ East Cascades region. (Or at least that is my plan.)
By Eleanor Burke
In a short video, the person behind the camera posed this question to a series of random people: “What is a phytopathologist?” Stupefied stares accompanied answers ranging from, “No clue!” to “Is it about dogs?” (Think Fido-pathologist.) The audience laughed uproariously—probably because it was a gathering of the American Phytopathological Society–some 1,500 of whose members attended their annual meeting last summer in the Rhode Island Convention Center.
Phytopathologists are specialists in plant diseases–doctors for plants, which, like people, can get sick and need medical attention. Why care about sick plants? Imagine one week in your life without them. No veggies, potatoes, or pasta; no meat or fish, since the drumstick on your plate owes its existence to plants, as well. Forget clothing, since fibers (even synthetics) originated as plants. In a plantless world, you would pretty much be living on water, wearing your birthday suit, and sleeping under the stars.
The sessions at the convention summoned visions of Greek mythological characters: Phytoplasma, Fastidious Prokaryote, Rhizosphere Ecology—yikes. But the keynote session, completely accessible to mere mortals, delivered a profoundly important message for scientists everywhere. The engaging speakers, Valerie Lantz-Gefroh and Evonne Kaplan Liss of the Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, urged the auditorium of scientists to re-think how they communicate their knowledge to the rest of us, because what they have to say is too important to get lost in the fog of research publications that most non-scientists—politicians, funders, policy makers, and commoners like us—can’t follow. Continue reading →
Published at www.Greenempowerment.org [Questions and responses edited for continuity.]
Patrick graduated from Purdue University in 2014 with a degree in Civil Engineering. While studying there, he participated in a team collaboration to develop a locally sourced, locally fabricated micro-hydropower facility in the rural community of Bangang, Cameroon, where he gained his early lessons in micro-hydropower (MH) as a sustainable energy solution for rural communities. He carried these lessons on to his work with Green Empowerment, first as an intern for our partner organization Tonibung in Malaysian Borneo, and more recently as a GE Fellow in Myanmar, where he has spent a year exploring the possibilities for GE collaboration in developing MH facilities for rural villages with no other access to electricity. The opinions he offers are his own, and not necessarily those of Green Empowerment or of the other networks mentioned in this article.
How did you decide to focus your work on Micro Hydro solutions to rural development?
I’ve always been intrigued by small hydropower production—especially with all the new technologies coming out. I love to geek out on solving the engineering problems—and nothing can match the cost per kilowatt of Micro Hydro, if it’s done right.
Fresh out of a one-year internship, you took on a Fellowship assignment as GE’s solo man-on-the-ground to explore MH possibilities in Myanmar. How did that feel, starting out cold and alone, and not knowing the territory?
It felt cold and alone! But I had a good foundation to stand on. Shortly after graduation in 2014, I had worked as a “deck hand” at an HPNet* practice-to-policy event in Myanmar. I photo-documented the event, and was fortunate to meet a number of local MH developers. Volunteering at that conference planted the seeds for my fellowship work this past year. [*HPNet = Hydro EmPowerment Network a community of MH actors whose mission is “Knowledge exchange for Community Micro Hydro in South and Southeast Asia.”]
Two key people paved my way into the MH community in Myanmar. GE’s Asia Regional Director, Gabe Wynn, had already established a solid landing environment for me. And HPNet’s Coordinator Dipti Vaghela guided my path to getting settled here. She also wasn’t shy about telling me the DO’s and DON’Ts about this work.
What sort of DO’s or DON’Ts did she recommend?
My early mentality was: “Find funding! Establish partners! Identify tech transfer opportunities!” But Dipti taught me that it’s not always about planting a flag for the rest of the world to see. Sometimes it’s important to stay behind the scenes.
Together with local developers we wrote a proposal to the biggest players—in the government and various bilateral development partners, for a Development Plan for Micro and Mini Hydropower Implementation of the NEP of Myanmar, using a Public-Private Partnership Approach. It lays a plan for the best chance for the MH sector to become sustainable. She taught me the important nuances of this proposal coming from local developers, not outside agents or NGOs. So the Small Hydro Power Association of Myanmar (SHPAM), a local practitioner’s association, authored the proposal, and we kept largely to the background.
What do you see as the most pressing issue affecting MH development in Myanmar?
Definitely the National Electrification Plan (NEP). It’s an ambitious plan which calls for 99% connection to the national grid by 2030, whereas currently only 30% of households are connected. The 1% not included in the grid-extension area would mostly access electricity through solar home systems, because they are too remote to connect to the grid before 2030, or maybe ever.
The target for sustainable MH mini-grids is primarily the half-million households in the “pre-electrification” zone, where their connection to the grid is 10-15 years out. MH is preferable to solar home systems for several reasons. Locally manufactured and maintained, it creates jobs in the local economy. And unlike solar, it runs both day and night, so it can power both income-producing end-uses like cottage industries, pumps, and rice mills, as well as evening household needs, and socially important facilities like schools and health care centers.
There are many—somewhere around 1,000—MH mini-grids built by private sector actors in Myanmar over the past 30 years, at a time when the former government was not paying much attention to rural electrification. These community-owned mini-grids are facing an uphill battle, because solar home systems can be implemented more quickly and on a larger scale than technologies like MH or biomass gasification, and the anticipated encroachment by the national grid is a disincentive for many MH mini-grid developers to pursue high quality sites, except in the most remote regions of the country. It isn’t clear what the new democratically elected government, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), will do next. We hope to support our local partners, primarily the Renewable Energy Association Myanmar, make the case for MH mini-grids, and decentralized renewable energy solutions in general, as part of the new government’s energy planning process.
After your year of internship in Borneo, you blogged that “nothing trumps the culture element in community Micro Hydro. It is the single most accurate predictor of project success and failure.” Is that still your main takeaway, after a year in the field in Myanmar?
A Profile by Eleanor Burke
Four young professionals, guest speakers in a seminar class at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sat with a dozen freshmen in a circle of standard-issue college desks. All four wore the garb of their chosen profession: jeans, mud-splattered work boots, and flannel shirts. A pungent aroma of hay, horses, and earthiness pervaded the classroom. Something was not quite typically collegiate here.
The first speaker, a plucky young woman named Nell, her long auburn hair pulled into a charmingly unruly ponytail, asked the wide-eyed freshmen: “Have you had your life-changing moment yet, in John’s class?”
The savoir-farm Nell exuded had struck them speechless. “You will,” she said, “It happens to everyone.”
Nell was referring to John Gerber, the professor of this class and mentor to all four guests. Gerber had invited these recent graduates of the university’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture to talk to his first-year students in the Sustainable Food and Farming course about life after college—or more specifically, about how they managed to carry their agricultural degrees, skills, and knowledge into the real world of farming careers.
UMass Amherst, considered the flagship campus of the UMass system, grew in the Pioneer Valley soil in 1863 as Massachusetts Agricultural College, dubbed “Mass Aggie” back then. In recent decades, however, a focus on basic research has pulled the university away from its original roots, leaving only a tenuous connection to agriculture through an associate’s degree program and an ever-shrinking agricultural extension service, both on the brink of extinction. Until recently, that is.
On a tide of renewed interest in local, sustainable farming methods and food security, last summer the university reorganized its disjointed agriculture-related programs into the overarching Stockbridge School of Agriculture. It houses both 2-year and 4-year programs for students who want to apply their learning to the real world of farms–orchards, livestock, food production and marketing—as well as turf grass and sustainable landscaping.
Over coffee at the Blue Wall Café in the student union, Wes Autio, the Stockbridge School’s Director and a driving force behind its reconstitution, referred to Gerber as “Dr. John,” as he described a new breed of students in the program. “Dr. John’s Sustainable Food and Farming [course]…was the evolution of a curriculum that took us from a very few students interested in farming, to 80-90 students. …It piques students’ interests from all sorts of different lanes, from helping the world survive to normal agricultural production in its traditional sense.”
For Gerber, the hands-on nature of the program is its draw. Over a vegan lunch in the student-run Earthfoods Café, he said, “The University doesn’t really encourage practical experience. We have to create mechanisms for that to happen, so students can study and be credentialed at the same time. That’s what we try to do in the Stockbridge program—give them what they actually need, both science and experience.”
Gerber depicted his teaching mission as “building lifeboats to the future,” an image he credits to John Todd, another sustainable agriculture proponent. “These are actually lifeboats that I can help build. That’s my part. I can work with these students and contribute.”
Gerber’s students spoke candidly about how the Sustainable Food and Farming major, which he coordinates, had changed their lives. Several seniors described having meandered their way there through a series of what they earlier characterized as “failures,” which they now recognized as growing pains. One explained, “Everyone’s failed here—but we just fail, then fail better. This major is really what I would call an actual learning experience—it’s not just read, consume, and regurgitate.”
Max, another senior, described his transition from the 2-year program to the 4-year bachelor’s program: “What I learned my first two years got lost in translation my third year, because I was taking gen-eds that had no relation to agriculture, sustainability, food and farming, or vegetable production. It was discouraging, like being in purgatory for a whole year, constantly being bludgeoned” by irrelevant requirements, before he landed in Gerber’s program.
You can tell from their stories that John Gerber is the man-behind-the-curtain of these transformed lives. Taking no credit, Gerber merely said, “We have 75 in the Sustainable Food and Farming major that think they’re going to change the world one farm at a time. … That’s not me. That’s the world changing. I’m just riding the wave.”
Back in the classroom, the visiting graduates told the freshmen of the need for persistence at knocking on farmhouse doors to break into the profession. Gerber’s closing advice: “The answer to almost any question in life is going to be ‘no’ the first time. When somebody says ‘no,” you try again. That’s how it works.”
Since the enactment of the U.S. National Environmental Education Act of 1990, American schools seeking to develop K-16 Environmental Education (EE) programs ask which forces best drive strong environmental curriculum. Survey data from 193 high schools quantified their sustainability features and environmental curricular offerings. Univariate regression analysis determined the most significant sustainability variables (p< .05), and odds ratio analysis ranked their correlation with robust EE. The ratios suggest importance of: student demand for EE offerings; institutional commitment; teacher, facilities manager, and/or campus coordinator leadership; and networking or publicizing beyond school walls.
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Wellfleet, MA Audubon Center
The Wellfleet Audubon Center, a LEED Platinum Certified building, was a partial-new (2003) construction, partial-renovation of the original 1990 building and grounds. Excavation for the addition was minimized; demolition and recycling of waste followed highest LEED guidelines. Renovation increased building from 3000 sf to 8000 sf. To offset the added area, Audubon bought 5 acres of land to maintain as greenspace. Access road is of crushed stone, and walkways of permeable pavers. Local architect Andrew Miao designed this as his first green building, and landscape designer was Chris Oriuchi.
Materials in the renovation/new construction are of high recycled content: engineered wood-scrap beams and joists, shredded newspaper blown insulation and acoustic ceiling covering, recycled tire rubber flooring, pine floorboards salvaged from demolition in NJ, recycled plastics carpet and bathroom partitions, imitation slate from concrete & fly-ash, composite decking outdoors, and countertops of newspaper/resin composite. The exhibit provides hands-on samples for visitors to examine. Some new materials were used: “plyboo” and wheatboard office walls, Azek (vinyl) window trim, argon-filled double pane windows, and sustainable forest certified wood trim.
Sited in the woods on Cape Cod, there is no sewer or septic system. Composting Clivus toilets use 2oz. alcohol-based foam per flush into a large composting storage bin in the basement below; twice a year the bins are emptied to an outdoor compost bin; every 2-3 years the compost is used to fertilize plantings (non-edibles.)
A rainwater collection system irrigates the bog garden, using 4 partially subterranean 400-gallon cisterns that supply a latticework of perforated pipes under the bog and alongside plantings. A well provides drinking and cooking water. A wood furnace heats the entire building, using local Black Locust, which burns quite completely at high temperature and puts out clean exhaust with very little carbon content. Backup biodiesel fuel has never been needed. Natural ventilation provided by ceiling fans, operable ceiling windows, and heat-exchangers obviates the need for air conditioning, thus ground-source water cooling was deemed unnecessary.
Photovoltaic panels, a 3KW array on roof of new building and an 18KW array next to the bog garden, provide 30-40% of the building’s power. Consumption is minimized by use of occupant-sensors, T-5 bulbs, skylights, and natural ventilation. A planned wind turbine on the property will eventually take the building to net-zero energy consumption.
Outdoor new plantings are of native species; the hummingbird and insect garden contains a few non-natives, transplanted from the previous site. Joe Lawler, who gives a great tour of the facility, is particularly fond of the “All Persons Trail” of crushed schist, accessible to wheelchairs and persons using walking aids, which gently slopes to marsh and bay views. From a blind on the trail, walkers may see a Kingfisher diving in the marsh for its dinner.
The Essex County Greenbelt Headquarters Building, Essex, MA
by Eleanor Burke
The Essex County Greenbelt Association (ECGA) is headquartered in a 220-year-old farmhouse situated in a marshy meadow on the tidal banks of the Essex River. The building was expanded and renovated in 2006-07, to improve its usefulness to the owners and to make it as “green” as possible within the given budget, and in visual harmony with the style and period of the original building. Nine full-time employees use the building daily; as many as 30 people gather periodically in the meeting spaces.
A builder/designer coordinated the integrated planning for the renovation. He is conducting the documentation process for LEED certification, which may turn out to be Silver level. Because the mission of the ECGA is to preserve green spaces, the team maintained a clear focus during design and construction decisions. Through strategic use of grants and donations, the designer/owner/occupant team was able to “go greener” than they originally thought they would.
The building envelope was insulated with Icynene foam (water based, low VOC, 100x expansion to fill all cavities, R=up to 29) on exterior walls and attic ceiling. Double-pane operable windows replaced the originals, allowing fresh air 3 seasons/year and rendering the air conditioner rarely needed. A gas furnace (97% efficient) and forced hot air system replaced the old oil/radiator one. A 1000-gallon cistern recaptures and stores rainwater for gray water uses such as flushing and outdoor spigots. In dry spells or deep freezes, town-water is the backup system. Black roof shingles donated locally were a trade-off in the construction-cost v. green-goals of the project.
Construction waste was reused onsite or recycled. The old floorboards, for example, formed the desktops for all the offices and meeting room tables. New materials such as rugs and wall coverings were selected for recycled content and no/low VOC off-gassing. New floorboards and slate entry tiles came locally, from Vermont.
A few decidedly 21st-century features were added for green-modeling purposes. A small (1.5kw) photovoltaic unit of 10 panels provides about 10% of the power used in the building. Because the roof was not oriented for solar exposure, the unit is free-standing and rotates to follow the sun at 15˚/hr. A computer program monitors the PV energy use (tracked daily by a contracted German company); at peak use in summer it provides 17% of the building’s energy load, and in winter on a cloudy day, only about 2%.
The Essex County Greenbelt Association Headquarters walks its talk and models its mission. What a wonderful place to work, volunteer, or ramble through the meadows!
The town of Lexington, MA, opened a new LEED Silver building complex, 80,000sf for Public Works and Facilities on the 9.6 acre site of the old DPW. An Open House on Sept. 26, 2009, celebrated the new green building and invited the public for tours and information from the architect and building occupants/ operators. Winter solar gain is achieved in southern facing design. During construction, the site was decontaminated from the remnants of the 1900-1920 B&M RR Trolley Barn ($250K), including proper disposal of oil-contaminated soils, and 85% reuse or recycling of materials in the old buildings. Construction debris was also separated and recycled; new materials included 40% recycled content whenever possible, and were delivered from within a 500-mile radius.
Rainwater is collected, stored, reused (for washing town vehicles), and/or bio-filtered for aquifer recharge.
The roof of the building channels the rainwater either into the 10 x 500-gallon storage tanks (with tank hookup for street sweepers), or onto the 10,000sf section of green roof, or into one of four bio-swales on the site, which filter and drain in 24 hours into the local aquifer. The three systems are designed to handle a “100-year storm.” Parking spaces (though not truck through-ways) are of semi-permeable asphalt.
Most spaces have natural light from clerestory windows, skylights, and/or light-wells, and need no artificial lighting in daytime. Indoor rooms have occupancy sensors for lights on/off control, and use T5 CFLs. Ventilation air exchange is on demand (by CO2 sensors), and an enthalpy wheel recaptures heated or cooled/dehumidified air for reuse of the dry air and heat. Garage doors are minimized, with none facing north; ceiling fans pull summer night cooler air through louvers on north walls, maintaining day temp of 70˚ on a 90˚ outdoor day. Radiant heat in garage ceiling beams warms objects (not air), with temp maintained at 45˚ in winter. Concrete slab floor serves as thermal cool/heat mass.
The Minuteman Bike trail is adjacent to the DPW facility; a connecting link to DPW site encourages biking to work, and a bench/water fountain at the link invite passing riders to enjoy the use of the facility. The building has a bike rack and shower/changing rooms for staff who bike or walk to work or who exercise during lunch break or end of shift.
This is not your grandfather’s DPW facility!