Youth crews help protect homes from wildfire thanks to state-funded training

Lindsay Nava hauled branches up a long wooded driveway near Grants Pass under the burning midday sun on Tuesday. Her blonde hair, tucked into braids and bound back with a bandana, poked out from underneath her orange hard hat while she felled trees and limbs, building a pile to turn into wood chips.

Nava, 22, is on a five-person team of young people working to clear fire hazards from around homes and buildings in Southern Oregon, through a new effort funded by the Legislature in 2021 as part of a sweeping $ 195 million package to boost Oregon’s wildfire preparedness. The Oregon Conservation Corps program allows young people to develop the skills to become wildland firefighters and land managers while helping vulnerable communities mitigate fire risks. The Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which distributes the funds, expects nearly 400 corps members ages 16 to 26 to work on crews overseen by tribes, schools and nonprofits around the state.

Crew members on Nava’s Northwest Youth Corps crew receive a $ 4,235 stipend and $ 1,678 for school costs during their 10-week assignments, during which they camp near their worksites. The crews learn to use chainsaws and power tools and take courses that prepare them to test for a “red card,” an industry certification to become wildland firefighters.

That’s why Nava is here.

Nava graduated from Northern Arizona University this spring with a degree in public relations. She’s decided instead to go into wildland firefighting, the field that her dad works in. But she wanted to learn the ropes on her own.

“It just seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to put my toes in the water before I jump into fire,” Nava said.

National agencies have struggled during the pandemic to find staff to fill wildfire crews, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. Oregon senators are campaigning to boost firefighter workforce and wages and to treat western landscapes to reduce fire danger. Oregon’s youth crews help with mitigation work while training to potentially enter that career.

Lin Boyea’s Northwest Youth Corps crew starts mornings with a “safety circle,” stretching and discussing safety issues before they get started on the day’s work cutting and clearing fire dangers around homes in Josephine County.Sami Edge / The Oregon

WATCH OUT FOR WIDOWMAKERS

As the Southern Oregon sky turned from pink to blue on Tuesday morning, Lin Boyea’s crew of six headed to work.

The Josephine County areas where her crew worked this week are among those most in danger of wildfires. The cities of Merlin and Grants Pass were both ranked near the top of an Oregon community wildfire risk assessment compiled by Montana firm Pyrologix. Just last month, the Rum Creek fire burned over 20,000 acres on the Rogue River, about five miles northwest of where Boyea’s crew gathered Tuesday at a manufactured home in the wooded hills.

At the start of every workday, Boyea leads the crew in a “safety circle,” during which each team member leads a stretch and shares a concern.

Ben Mitchell, 22, warned his team about bees. He narrowly avoided getting stung when he put his knee in a hive the day before, potentially because they couldn’t penetrate the kevlar work chaps the team wears to protect themselves from chainsaw mishaps.

Boyea was concerned about “widowmakers,” a forestry term for dead tree limbs that can fall and potentially kill.

“Just make sure you are wearing your hard hat,” Boyea told her crew.

Boyea, 27, worked as a youth social worker before signing up to lead a Community Wildfire Protection Corps team through nonprofit Northwest Youth Corps, which started the new fire mitigation crew with the state’s funding. She was stunned by intensity of the 2020 Holiday Farm fire, near Eugene. It was the first time Boyea, who is from Colorado, had seen ash rain from the sky. She’s found a new niche in the intersection of conservation and youth empowerment.

“This wasn’t something I had planned on doing with my degree,” she said. “It was something I started doing and really loved.”

Boyea’s crew has a recent psychology grad and a former security guard, a prospective firefighter exploring the country through AmeriCorps and a former Seattle youth services worker. For some, the job is a summer service project, or a stopover until they decide what comes next. For others, it’s the beginning of a new career.

Oregon Conservation Corps

Chito Romero, 21, gathers pieces of a tree he chopped down because it was touching the barn of homeowner George Mount, near the small community of Merlin, OR.Sami Edge

Chito Romero first signed up for other outdoor conservation projects with Northwest Youth Corps at 16. His mom pushed him to do the projects, to stay out of trouble for the summer. At 21, he’s back on the adult fire crew as he considers a career as a park ranger.

Romero grabbed a chainsaw Tuesday morning to chop up a pine tree he’d felled the day before. The crew takes out trees that lean against structures and trims branches too close to the ground. They target “ladder-fuels,” like shrubs or low limbs, that could lead a fire from burning on the ground up into the treetops.

Northwest Youth Corps crews will clean up 100 feet in any direction of a home or structure, said community wildfire protection corps coordinator Alicia Rabideau, but focus most intensely on clearing the first 30 feet around homes to create a buffer of “defensible space” from flammable Material.

The crew’s efforts are an attempt to keep people’s homes and communities from burning down if a fire breaks out, an escalating threat as climate change and drought intensify the severity of wildfires.

“We’re trying to protect people’s livelihoods and communities and make it safe to escape,” Rabideau said.

As Romero cuts, others pick up the branches he’s removed and take them to the chipper. Boyea mans the expensive machine while Mitchell and crew members Kellan Beckham and Rae Thoma feed it trunks that spew out the side like pine-scented rain.

On-the-job training entails more than just technical skills, Boyea said. The crew talks through conflict management and communication and a large part of Boyea’s focus with a prior crew was on mental health, she said.

“This work is challenging and stressful and we have to find a way to build community within that,” she said.

FOCUS ON VULNERABLE POPULATIONS

Oregon Conservation Corps grantees focus on supporting populations with “greater vulnerability,” said Doug Denning, director of youth workforce development for the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. That includes communities of color, indigenous communities, people with limited English proficiency and low-income communities.

Northwest Youth Corps works with local area fire departments, which recommend property owners who need help with clearing fire hazards and perhaps struggle physically or financially to get that done.

Katy Callies, 54, didn’t think she’d made the list. Homeowners in the rural Grants Pass area got a letter about the wildfire prevention cleanup this spring, and though she signed up right away, all of the slots were already full. Then, a crew called her Monday to say they had availability.

Callies owns over four acres on a hilly plot three miles southwest of Merlin with a home, studio and garage. She has multiple sclerosis and her husband has shoulder troubles, she said, which limits how much fire maintenance they can do themselves.

“We definitely needed the crews to come help,” she said.

The family has hired companies to help with fire mitigation work before, Callies said, but it’s expensive: Over $ 2,000 to have someone cut down six dead trees, and at least $ 1,000 for a crew to bulldoze a fire break, mowing over small trees to try to create a fireproof barrier around the house.

Callies knows the risk. Her family has been ready to evacuate twice in recent years, including last month during the Rum Creek fire.

Having a crew do what it can to reduce the risk to her house gives Callies some peace of mind.

“You can never be totally comfortable when there are fires nearby, but at least having done what needs to be done will help,” Callies said.

Nava and her team member Diego Velazquez took turns felling small trees and on Callies’ property, paying particular attention to the steep driveway. Part of the crews’ focus is to make driveways safe enough that firefighters could drive up to defend a home, without concern that their path could be blocked by fire.

The outdoor work feels like “going home” for Velazquez, 21, who used to help his dad’s landscaping company. Velazquez stumbled upon a poster advertising the summer work when he was walking through downtown Ashland. The print shop he was working at was about to close and he needed a new job. He might have found a new calling.

During a training session, Velazquez learned about fireline explosives crew members, who use explosives to fell hazard trees or help stop fires. He is investigating that as a potential career path.

“That sounded really cool to me,” Velazquez said.

Nava also sees the corps as the first step toward her new career and a way to train for her red card for free.

Despite her dad’s career in firefighting, she was intimidated about entering the field. She didn’t feel like she knew enough about chainsaws and worried she wouldn’t be strong enough for the work.

On Tuesday, Nava strapped on the backpack-like pole saw to cut low-hanging limbs from trees, before taking up the chainsaw to cut trunks. She’s far more comfortable with the tools now and getting stronger. Each day, she can work a bit longer before fatigue hits. She wants to be at peak performance before she takes on the physical fitness test to earn her wildland firefighting credentials.

“I feel less intimidated now and more excited,” she said, “like I’m on the right path.”

This story was brought to you through a partnership between The Oregon / OregonLive and Report for America. Learn how to support this crucial work.

Sami Edge covers higher education for The Oregon. You can reach her at [email protected] or (503) 260-3430.

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