EDITOR’S NOTE: Story updated 6/19/17 to describe the trees as “dog-hair” trees, not “dogleg.”
Volunteers thin trees around communication equipment
By Marcy Stamper
Vital infrastructure for emergency communications, phone service and radio broadcasts will be better protected from wildfire after a dozen volunteers with Team Rubicon finish thinning dense stands of dog-hair trees on the summit of McClure Mountain next week.
Although hazardous-fuels reduction on the 4,560-foot peak has been on the radar, so to speak, for years, the project came together quickly in the past six months after a representative from Team Rubicon contacted Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu.
The representative was looking for opportunities to work on a project that would provide skills training for his volunteers while benefiting the ranger district and the public, said Liu.
Liu proposed thinning the trees closest to the buildings, towers and high-tech equipment on McClure. The project was particularly attractive because it would provide experience with chainsaws, which could help the volunteers qualify for forest or firefighting jobs, he said.
Twelve Team Rubicon volunteers, plus an incident commander, arrived in the valley on Friday (June 9) and will work through this weekend. Although most had never done tree work before, on their third day the team surveyed their progress with pride.
“You couldn’t see any mountains before we did the thinning,” said volunteer Linda Adye-Whitish as she looked at snow-capped peaks on the horizon.
“These guys have been kicking butt and dragging piles uphill,” said team leader Omar Rubi.
While fuels reduction on McClure was deemed a high priority, the U.S. Forest Service didn’t have funding to do the work, said Liu during a visit to the McClure thinning project this week.
The project got a boost after the Carlton Complex Fire when Methow Valley Long Term Recovery identified overall communications as a significant gap, said Jason Paulsen, the group’s president. “Having McClure ‘out of service’ due to a fire would be a real challenge for all things public service,” he said.
The recovery group wrote letters to the forest supervisor supporting the ranger district’s efforts to get money for fuels reduction on McClure. Last year their board made a $5,000 grant to the ranger district, hoping to schedule the thinning before the next fire season, said Paulsen.
“The grant was really just seed money,” said Liu. The Forest Service had finished its environmental review and had approval for the fuels reduction, but still didn’t have the money to do it. A recent fuels-reduction project near Mazama cost about $600 per acre, he said.
As money has become scarcer in his 30 years with the Forest Service, Liu said they are increasingly relying on innovative ways to get work done. Having the Team Rubicon crew was the key to getting started on McClure.
About 70 percent of the Team Rubicon volunteers are veterans and 10 to 15 percent are former police officers or firefighters. “The rest are kick-ass civilians,” said incident commander KC Baney. Fire crews and other staff from the ranger district are working alongside the Team Rubicon volunteers, said Liu.
Combining vets and civilians on a team is helpful with reintegration after military service, said Baney.
In addition to the sawyers, swampers (who gather and pile felled trees), and spotters (who keep everyone safe) on McClure, the Team Rubicon crew includes a nurse and a mental health counselor.
Team Rubicon started seven years ago when a group of U.S. Marines set out to help after a devastating earthquake in Haiti. Since then, they have grown to 45,000 members nationwide. The Northwest region has about 6,000 members, about 500 of whom are active. Most take vacation time to work on volunteer projects.
Wellness manager Alicia Sloan is available on the McClure project for vets — or any volunteers — dealing with PTSD or other mental health issues. It’s not uncommon to see “post-deployment blues,” which can hit team members after the camaraderie and focus of a project ends, she said.
The physical labor and shared effort are therapeutic, especially for veterans used to being on a mission, said Sloan. Adye-Whitish, an emergency-room nurse, recently volunteered at a Syrian refugee camp in Greece. “Team Rubicon is the most inclusive organization I’ve ever belonged to,” she said.
Wildfires in both 2014 and 2015 threatened McClure and the critical communications infrastructure there, said Liu.
In some ways, that infrastructure is even more vulnerable today. It got its first big upgrade in 50 years last fall, when Okanogan County’s outdated equipment — essentially a telephone pole and a yurt housing emergency communications equipment — were replaced with modern structures and wireless technology, said Mike Worden, chief deputy of communications for the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department.
The new microwave network completed a countywide web used by law enforcement, fire districts, EMS, utilities and public works.
Overall, there are about 150 acres to treat on McClure. This project focuses on thinning trees closest to the communications equipment, said Liu. Team Rubicon’s action plan calls for thinning, pruning and piling slash on 55 to 129 acres.
Slash will be piled and allowed to cure for about a year, and will be burned when weather permits, said Liu. He acknowledged the piles could be a risk if there is a fire this season, but they’ll be further from the communications towers than the trees were.
Liu put in some physical labor himself during the winter to check out concerns about old growth raised during the environmental review for the thinning. He snowshoed to the McClure summit in deep, fresh snow.
“It took all day. I thought I could go up and down easily, but I had to hold onto branches,” he said. But the trip paid off — Liu was able to design the thinning to avoid the old-growth stand.
Team Rubicon groups will come to the valley for shorter periods throughout the summer to finish the work, said Liu. Another section of skinny Douglas fir along the road will most likely have to wait for another project, said Liu.
Team Rubicon also relies on local volunteers and donors to make their missions possible. Methow Valley resident Carolyn Groninger, a veteran and chaplain with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, has been helping coordinate donations and services for months.
Many businesses, churches and individuals in the Methow have donated services and food for the volunteers. Hank’s Harvest Foods is providing discounted groceries, Twisp Chamber of Commerce members are cooking a special dinner, the Community Covenant Church has offered showers, and the crew is camping on private land. Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe is hosting a round of miniature golf.