Taking the Fuel Out of Wild Fires

AmeriCorps Helps Oregon Prep Forests for Fire Prevention

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Patrick Lair is public affairs officer with the U.S. Forest Service in Prineville, Ore.

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Posted: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 1:06 pm

Springtime is the right time for federal fire managers to conduct prescribed burns to reduce the threat of summer wildfires at Oregon’s Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland. The schedule for these burns depends on weather conditions, air quality, moisture tests of fire fuel and the staff to do the prep work for the prescribed burns.

“A lot of people and a lot of analysis goes into one prescribed burn,” said Patrick Lair, public affairs officer with the U.S. Forest Service in Prineville, Ore.

“We have annual targets of the number of acres that we need to treat each year. Based on that and the fuel threat, we prioritize the people we have for what we need to do. We don’t have unlimited staff so we chip away at it,” Lair said.

Since the Forest Service doesn’t always have the staff to support prescribed burns, the agency partners with AmeriCorps to get the fire fuel reduction acres treated in a timely manner. Through this partnership at-risk youth learn the technical skills required to do this work. One of those partners is the Heart of Oregon Corps.

Heart of Oregon Corps is a nonprofit organization that hopes to “inspire and empower positive change in the lives of young people through jobs, education, and stewardship,” according to its website. Heart of Oregon Corps is a member of the Deschutes Children’s Forest and the 21st Century Service Conservation Corps.

AmeriCorps’ primary outcomes include improving at-risk ecosystems on public lands, while providing opportunities for primarily economically disadvantaged young people to earn a GED or diploma, complete college courses, and secure future employment, according to this 2014 article on KTVZ.com in Bend, Ore.

The AmeriCorps program currently consists of 60 people who are working on natural resource conservation projects. These crews, made up of seven to eight people, work 8-hour shifts five days a week. Besides working with the Forest Service, the AmeriCorps crew also works with Bureau of Land Management, the city of Prineville, the city of Bend and the Kiwanis Club of Prineville.

Through this vocational program, they learn how to use a chainsaw, build a fence, maintain hiking and biking trails and are able to become CPR certified, said Carly Shadron, development coordinator with Heart of Oregon Corps.

“They do it year-round, but there’s a greater need for fire fuel reduction in the fall and spring before the wildfire season,” Shadron said.

But it wasn’t always a year-round program.

In 2009, Heart of Oregon Corps received a $119,172 grant from the Forest Service to hire youth to work on fuel reduction projects. In 2014, Heart of Oregon Corps received a $394,955 grant and was able to expand the part-time program into a full-time, year-round program.

“Through the program they learn a lot of technical skills about conservation management. They also learn soft job skills like showing up for work on time or calling in when they are sick. They learn what it means to have a full-time job,” Shadron said.

There are similar federally funded partnerships, like this one in Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California.

There are three different types of fire fuel reduction: broadcast burns, thinning and jackpot burning. In broadcast burns, you burn across the landscape at a low and intense heat. In thinning, you walk through the area and selectively reduce the fuel source. Jackpot burning is part of a hazardous fuels reduction program that addresses high concentrations of naturally-occurring or thinning-related downed woody debris, Lair explained. That debris is piled up and dried for several years before it is burned.

Lair said federal fire managers analyze a given area and use the type of prescribed burn based on that information.

“The department does different burns at different times of year depending on the purpose and the need," Lair said. “We do a lot in the spring and fall because that’s when it’s cooler and wetter.”

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