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Stopping wildfire before it happens

Ameline Keith was exhausted. And who wouldn’t be? The 16-year-old Ashland High School junior had been battling a steep hill all day under the hot sun, up and down, up and down, hauling brush into piles for a future burn.

Keith knew what she was getting herself into when her friend, Maya Beecraft, told her about the Lomakatsi Restoration Project’s annual summer youth program, but still. When that particularly hard day during her first week on the job was mercifully over, she wasn’t sure she had the wherewithal to climb up and out. She did, then seemed to surprise herself while describing what she felt next.

“It was so steep, and your legs were just dead at the end of it,” she said, “and you wanted to just lie there and not walk home because ... you were so tired. But at the end of the day, you’re tired, but you feel so successful in what you’ve done. And for me, I’m ready to go back in and ready to do it again because the feeling at the end is so rewarding.”

Keith is one seven high school students from Medford, Phoenix and Ashland in their third week of the four-week program designed to teach Rogue Valley youngsters how to steward their local ecosystems while actually doing so. They’re working mostly in the Ashland Watershed to support the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project. A partnership between the city of Ashland, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service, the project’s goal, according to Lomakatsi’s website, is to “reduce the risk of severe wildfire, secure clean drinking water, and protect forests, wildlife, habitat, people, property, local economy and the quality of life in Ashland.”

Lomakatsi had originally canceled this year’s program back when everything went COVID-19 south, but after taking a closer look at guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it became clear that running a revised version was doable.

The most notable revision is probably the number of students — seven, rather than the usual 20. The students have to get their own ride to the work site or, if their only option is the Lomakatsi van, wear a mask while inside. Masks are also required when and if they can’t social distance while on the job, but that’s rarely the case, as was evident Monday morning at the White Rabbit Trailhead. Working a stone’s throw from the parking lot, the students and their supervisors were busy clearing Pacific madrone regrowth, clipping and dragging the twisted branches to 8-foot high mounds.

The madrones in this area, which is part of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, were ripped out by either Lomakatsi or one of its partners years ago, says Lomakatsi Communications Manager Tom Greco, but madrones don’t know when to quit and eventually will sprout again and become a fire hazard. A Lomakatsi crew had already gone through the area with saws, cutting down the dense trees. Monday was the students’ turn to pile up the brush. Later, it’ll be burned.

“We love involving youth with things like this because it shows them that it’s a perpetual process,” Greco said. “It’s not like you go in and treat a part of the forest and just walk away. You might be able to walk away for three, five years, but it’s a constant thing. So it’s nice for them to see that restoration isn’t just about going in and doing one set of work. It’s more about having a relationship with the land, seeing what it needs, coming back over time.”

This year’s summer program began Aug. 10 and was supposed to end Friday, but when local school districts pushed back the start of classes one week to Sept. 8, Lomakatsi decided it would ask its students if they were up for another week of work. All of them were, so Sept. 4 is the new end date.

That didn’t come as a surprise to restoration technician and youth crew leader Sequoia Ahimsa, who says several of the students had expressed a desire to, following the months-long COVID lockdown, breathe the sweet outside air.

“They had been stuck inside with COVID,” she said, “and they needed an outlet, so a lot of these guys were really excited to just get out of their house.”

That was true for Julien Haight, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Armadillo Technical Institute, a public charter school in Phoenix that serves up to 120 students in grades 9-12. Haight learned about the job from restoration technician and youth crew leader Liam Cislo, himself a former youth crew alum (class of 2013), and jumped at the opportunity. Haight says he’s always been interested in learning about the outdoors and wasn’t deterred by the prospect of laboring in triple-digit temperatures.

He and the rest of the crew have mostly been attacking madrones and blackberry bushes, and says over the past two weeks he’s already learned a lot about why they’re doing what they’re doing.

“They’ve been using this analogy which is quite funny,” Haight said. “The trees need social distancing so that they don’t get infections from each other and so that they have room to get sunlight or certain nutrients they need. They need that space. The madrones take up a lot of it.”

Haight said he and his workmates have learned to pace themselves during their 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift, especially on those days when the temperature’s expected to soar. That’s when it’s best to go hard in the morning and slow down a little as the day drags on.

Some may assume that the students would prefer madrone piling to blackberry work, considering the thorns, but Haight says no.

“We got blackberries on Friday,” he said. “We liked it. It’s so satisfying. We obliterated a whole area, and once all those blackberries are gone, then the plants and trees that need to grow can now have room to pollinate.”

Keith, like Haight, didn’t need much time to decide whether to go for the job after hearing about it. For one thing, she loves the outdoors and getting her hands dirty. For another, the job description sounded almost exactly like something her older brother did when he was her age.

Keith knew she’d be tested but says the camaraderie has helped dampen some of the suffering.

“Everyone was like, ‘It’s going to be really hard,’ and it was expected,” she said. “And it is hard, but at the same time you’re doing it with all these other people that are going through the exact same thing with you. You’re bleeding, sweating, you’re all gross and dirty at the end of the day, but you do it all together as a team and you talk along the way, and that makes everything 100% better.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

High school students help thin the landscape for fire safety off the Red Queen Trail in Ashland. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune