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 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.
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.)
Eagle Scout candidate and Lincoln-Sudbury High School senior Matt S. is on a mission against Lyme disease in his hometown of Lincoln, Massachusetts. This spring he will launch an educational blitz in town, and with the help of his troop he will disperse some 600 “tick tubes” in the brushy areas near the town’s playing fields and at Drumlin Farm Audubon Center.
Matt is poised to launch his project. “Every member of my family has had Lyme disease,” he said, “so I can’t wait to do this!” Continue reading →
By Eleanor Burke
My backyard gave to me: five nymphal ticks, four white-footed mice, three chipmunks, two shrub-eating deer, and the acorns from an oak tree. Each of these factors, not just the deer and the ticks, plays an important role in current epidemic levels of Lyme disease in the northeastern U.S. Many towns in the region are culling, or considering culling the deer population in an effort to lower the incidence of Lyme. Studies indicate they may be shooting at the wrong critters. Continue reading →
The Turquoise-Browed Motmot, Toh, or Pájaro Reloj
by Eleanor Burke July 2011
On the path into the ruins of Chichén Itzá, a number of beautiful green, blue, and russet birds with turquoise “brows” perched on branches of the scrubby peninsular trees. A local resident said it was just a common pájaro reloj, named for the shape and motion of its tail, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. But smitten by its beauty, I felt there was nothing ‘common’ about it. The Eumomota superciliosa, or Turquoise-Browed Motmot, an order relative of the Kingfisher, inhabits a small portion of the Caribbean coast from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico southward to Costa Rica. And, despite my reluctance to believe it, the bird is indeed “common,” or quite abundant in the region.
Turquoise-browed Motmot image from Wikipedia © Leonardo C. Fleck (email@example.com) 2007-04-16 (original upload date)