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