Over the past four years, Camp Howard staff and Oregon Department of Forestry crews worked together to make the camp safer in case of wildfire.
Perched on the rim of the canyon formed by the Bull Run River, Camp Howard is in thick Douglas fir forest that some experts say is overdue for a blaze. Evacuation plans are in place, and campers perform drills regularly, so there is not much risk of injury. But a fire could level the buildings.
That’s less likely now that much of the highly flammable brush on 70 acres of understory has been removed through a free program offered by the state.
Camp Howard was one of few camps in the area to undertake the safety measure. The idea is to remove understory growth that has accumulated over years of fire suppression. Those shrubs, vines and small trees provide a dangerous ladder from the ground to the upper reaches of the large firs. Flames can follow those links and create super-hot fires.
“The flames will go where there are fuels,” says Teresa Alcock, a state forester stationed in Molalla who directs the fuel reduction project. “Fire is going to happen. We need to minimize the heat.”
The crews created 100-foot buffer zones around camp, starting with the side adjacent to the canyon wall. Scientists have determined that 100 feet is a good distance to prevent radiant heat from igniting buildings. The space also allows a zone where firefighters can set up and fight flames.
“We thought we were vulnerable,” says Karen von Borstel, facilities manager at the camp. “Now we feel really good. The forest floor is clean. If a fire came, it would not get to the big trees.”
There are other benefits. Alcock says the thinning creates a healthier forest. Camp officials like the more open park-like setting.
Children can play in the woods and see across camp. Von Borstel has been planting trees like cedar and hemlock to create a safer, scenic and natural understory.
Von Borstel, who grew up in Central Oregon, has seen the damage done by wildfires. It’s not pretty. She has been in charge of chipping or burning the debris from the clearing work, and will be in charge of maintaining the open spaces.