FOREST

THE CUTTING EDGE OF WILDFIRE FUEL REDUCTION


For decades, Oregon’s forests have been heavily logged in the name of fire prevention.
Scientists say it’s not working. The Wildfire Workforce Corps proposes a new approach to fire preparation. 

By Wesley Lapointe






EUGENE, OR. After the Holiday Farm Fire last September, Jo-Jo Morales noticed a third-grade student was missing from the remote classroom he assisted as a teaching aid. “We were super concerned about him because of the fires,” recalled Morales. A week later, the teaching staff learned that the child’s family had lost everything when the flames spread through their trailer park.


Soon after that, the twenty-year-old teaching aid and aspiring rapper felt his own well-being spiral. “My job went from helping kids with special needs every day to being quiet on a computer.” That’s when his step-dad mentioned the Northwest Youth Corps, a regional organization that trains young adults in conservation work. Immediately interested, Morales envisioned the eight weeks of manual labor as inspiration for his music career. “I’ll become a grinder out there,” he predicted.


Though Morales and his crew weren’t told before the first day of training week, they were going to be members of a pilot program called the Wildfire Workforce Corps: a few dozen young adults tasked with reducing flammable vegetation in areas known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). The funding for this new initiative came from the Oregon Emergency Board, in response to the historic wildfires of 2020.





April 27, 2021- Jo-Jo Morales deposits ladder fuels that the Wildfire Workforce Corps have cleared from this city property above a gated community in Eugene’s South Hills. Most of the community members who reached out to the Wildfire Workforce Corps for fuel-reductions are from higher income areas. These services aren’t normally cheap or easy, which points to larger inequalities in who can afford to protect themselves from fire. April 27, 2021- Jo-Jo Morales deposits ladder fuels that the Wildfire Workforce Corps have cleared from this city property above a gated community in Eugene’s South Hills. Most of the community members who reached out to the Wildfire Workforce Corps for fuel-reductions are from higher income areas. These services aren’t normally cheap or easy, which points to larger inequalities in who can afford to protect themselves from fire.



“This is where thinning
will make a real difference.”



On a brisk March morning, Morales’ team of five pulled its white Ford pickup into the Fox Hollow Instructional Center. Led by Aaron Blacklock, a seasonal corps leader from Texas, the crew members stretched in a circle before carrying their gear to the backside of the school. The distant hum of the highway was punctuated by turkey gobbles; this was the Wildland Urban Interface.


Blacklock measured 100 feet from the school into the dense undergrowth at the edge of a hilly oak grove. He tied pink flagging around a tree, and outlined the crew’s task for them: remove all brush between the flagging and the school, then proceed up and around the entire building. The 100-foot perimeter around a structure is known as the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ). Coined by Jack Cohen, a retired Forest Service fire scientist, the HIZ is where fuel reduction has been proven to most significantly reduce a structure’s chance of ignition.


Known as “ladder fuels,” the biomass on the forest floor- dead plant matter, viney bushes and small conifers- serve as kindling in a fire, transforming low-intensity surface fires, which remain in the undergrowth, into what’s known as a crown fire–the severe infernos that burn entire stands of forest. During strong winds, embers and burning limbs that get launched from the canopy pose a risk to any fuels they land on.




March 23, 2021- Crew leader Aaron Blacklock helps Jo-Jo Morales calibrate his chainsaw behind the Fox Hollow Instructional Center, in Eugene. After a week of training on equipment safety and procedures, Morales is excited to begin their first day by “bucking” the thick fire fuels in their work site.March 23, 2021- Crew leader Aaron Blacklock helps Jo-Jo Morales calibrate his chainsaw behind the Fox Hollow Instructional Center, in Eugene. After a week of training on equipment safety and procedures, Morales is excited to begin their first day by “bucking” the thick fire fuels in their work site.

March 25, 2021- The crew takes breaks at the same times every day, discarding their gear at the site for a few brief moments of respite from the loud and tiring work.





“I can tell you that 5 to 10 million
acres is too big a problem to
just get in there and solve with saws.”




By the end of the first week, the five young men had bonded quickly over labor in the sun, cold nights beside a colder creek and an early bout of poison oak that only two of them evaded. They rotated who cooked each evening. One night, Morales cooked Menudo (Mexican tripe soup) for his four white crewmates from different corners of the country; not much was eaten. As the golden forest canopy dipped into a cold blue shadow each evening, the new friends wandered to their individual sites to rest–before beginning again at 4:30 am.


Morales and his crew’s work is representative of a shift in the fuel-reduction conversation, which has long been led in Oregon by proponents of mechanized thinning projects in remote forests. Following the 2020 Labor Day fires, more rhetoric than ever before– from rural backyards to the halls of Salem– is focused on reducing fuel loads in the immediate margins of communities.


“This is where thinning will make a real difference,” said Mike Medler, past firefighter and professor at Western Washington University, during a remote Oregon Senate hearing on March 15. Medler and a team of researchers identified 165,000 acres of WUI immediately surrounding communities in Oregon, of which only about 100,000 acres would require significant fuel reduction.



April 27, 2021- Josh Wright inspects today’s overgrown hillside in the Hendricks Hill neighborhood of Eugene, as Project Manager Ian Appow shows the group their worksite.


To put those numbers in perspective, Governor Kate Brown’s 2019 Fire Bill proposed thinning over 50 times as much forest– 5.6 million acres. The plan called for a $4 billion investment over 20 years, or $200 million annually. In 2020, the state scraped together just $20 million.


Medler is part of a growing group of scientists who think backcountry thinning is a waste of time and money. Instead, they argue, thinning should be methodical, and focused on the Wildfire Urban Interface. “I've worked in the Oregon woods thinning with chainsaws,” he said in his March 15 testimony, “and I can tell you that 5 to 10 million acres is too big a problem to just get in there and solve with saws.”


For Oregonians like Jo-Jo Morales’ student, whose home burned in a blaze that started just four miles down the highway in another mobile home park, backcountry fuel-treatments were futile. Across Eugene, residents have reached out to the Wildfire Workforce Corps, concerned about the fuel loads on their own land.






April 27, 2021- The Wildfire Workforce Corps begins to gather brush and dead limbs from a hillside atop a gated community in Eugene’s South hills. All of the brush and hanging branches will be “ladder fuels” for fire to climb into the canopy if ignition occurs nearby.

April 26, 2021- Josh Wright cuts a low hanging limb as Jo-Jo Morales prepares to grab it on a slope beneath a winding forested community in Eugene’s South hills. These low limbs, if ignited, are what will carry the flames into the forest’s canopy. The resulting crown fire will put nearby homes in extreme danger if the wind picks up.

March 23, 2021- Crew member Josh Wright, from Santa Rosa, rests as the Wildfire Workforce Corps breaks for lunch at their worksite behind the Fox Hollow Instructional Center in Eugene.




At the moment, Northwest Youth Corps is able to offer fuels-reduction to community partners for free because of an unexpected one-time call for funding proposals by the Oregon Emergency Board in response to the 2020 fire season. “It's hard to obtain funding for these types of things until something bad happens,” says Ian Appow, Project Manager of the Wildfire Workforce Corps. And this type of brush removal isn’t cheap. At one site, Appow remembers, the state funding enabled a crew to clear in just three days an overgrown area in which the Homeowners Association expected to invest three years of brush-removal budget.


For many landowners, the encroachment of flammable undergrowth is overwhelming their budgets to address it. “From a budgetary perspective, it’s a challenge,” said Mike Gelardi, Landscape Chair of the Hendrick Hill Homeowners Association and long-standing supporter of the corps. A low slope of the hilly 72-home neighborhood is today’s worksite for the Wildfire Workforce Corps. While he’s grateful for their help, Gelardi knows the hazard is far greater than the Wildfire Workforce Corps can handle in just three days with hand tools. “It's like bringing a knife to a gunfight,” he said.




April 5, 2021- A different crew in the Wildfire Workforce Corps carries branches, vines, and logs down the hill in front of Cascade Raptor Center, in Eugene. The center has never had to fully evacuate the couple dozen birds of prey, although their have been close calls with fires in recent years.



Each morning, as Aaron Blacklock drove the crew to their worksite, both the Willamette Valley and the team would awaken. Golden pastures out their window disappeared behind banks of heavy fog and reemerged as cavernous lakes. Morales would spend these drives scribbling rap lyrics in his composition notebook to instrumentals he found on the internet. After eight weeks, his notebook was overflowing, but it wasn’t just his rhyme schemes that had developed; his experience with the corps inspired him to affect real change in his hometown of Eugene.


“I say in my music all the time that I want to help my community,” he reflected as the sun set on his 41st day as a crew member. “But what better way to help than by getting our people to understand what fuel reduction is, and how it works.”




April 26, 2021- From left; Joel, Aaron, Jo-Jo, and Josh wash dishes after a dinner of chicken alfredo at the Black Canyon campground. Each night, a different crew member cooks, and they all do the dishes together after dinner.

April 26, 2021- Josh Wright does pull-ups on a taught length of paracord at their campsite while dinner is being prepared. The crew has the entire Black Canyon Campground- just North of Oakridge- to themselves because of Covid-closures.


April 26, 2021- Shortly after sunset, crew members retreat to their individual sites to rest before about 5 am, when their work day begins again.