Lessons from Klamath County

burned trees

Klamath County Forestry Extension Agent Daniel Leavell began his forestry and fire career in early 1973 at the Forest Fire Laboratory in Riverside, California, and continued later that year at the Oregon State campus. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1977 from OSU, and has been working and continuing his education in both industries ever since.

Leavell, who also holds a master’s degree from OSU and a doctoral degree from the University of Montana, started his current extension position with the Oregon State College of Forestry in 2014 and hit the ground running in Klamath and Lake Counties.

“We’re all working together to reach a common goal,” Leavell says. “It’s been extremely satisfying for me to play a role in these efforts – especially to see results happening on the ground.”

 

Klamath Community College Partnership

In 2014, the main fire district in Klamath Falls and Klamath Community College (KCC) began talking about the possibility of developing a formal program and facility that could support the training and education of first responders in the fields of fire, emergency medical services, law enforcement and more.

“We all agreed it was a community need and wanted to pursue it, and I offered assistance,” Leavell says.

Leavell was involved in wildland firefighting from 1978 to 2012 and with volunteer structure fire departments from 2006 to 2016. This experience allowed him to bring together other partners including the Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Air National Guard Fire Department at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls.

Leavell says it is important for first responders to attain national, state and local certifications. Many in emergency services also desire academic credit, but these are not required to obtain certified skills needed for the job. However, academic credit and degrees provide a competitive edge for job searches. Skills and experience count.

“Many first responders want certifications and academic credit,” Leavell says. “So we set up an organization to do that.”

The Klamath Basin Public Safety Training Center began with the goal of offering participants a two-year degree with options in structure and wildland fire, emergency medical and law enforcement.

Oregon State and KCC signed an agreement to test the concept and designed a curriculum for a two-year program focused on the basic academies of medical and fire sufficient to obtain certificates and credits. As proof of the concept, the program organized, created and implemented a structure fire academy during winter and spring terms in 2015 and 2016. The 14-week program involved 30 future professional, structure firefighters.

“They went through live fire training, ladder training and other exercises,” Leavell says. “Practical skills, scientific education and leadership training were also implemented, and at the end of the program they earned 12 academic credits and state certificates for structural firefighting.”

Leavell says the next step is to formalize the transfer program between KCC and Oregon State.

“This was needed,” Leavell stresses. “It will really benefit small communities with busy fire stations.”

Managing landscapes

One reason Leavell came to work in Klamath County was because he knew there were forward thinking forest managers working in and near the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

“The community here really works together,” Leavell says. “And when I got here, a group of private landowners and public land managers had been meeting and agreed to start work on a very large but successful project.”

Together, Leavell and the other managers were able to create maps and make risk assessments for 30,000 acres of private forest and 110,000 acres of National Forest.

“Within a year of completing the mapping, we were awarded $4 million in grants to begin implementing the projects we found were necessary during the mapping process.”

Throughout the process, Leavell worked one-on-one with landowners to help them create and implement management plans and pick projects that would benefit each forest.

Leavell says public and private land managers were able to work together to conserve resources during thinning efforts.

“It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” he says. “If a landowner can get grant money it’s easier for everyone to get a project done, and our reward is better management for the health and safety of the forests, communities and those responding to disturbances.”

Leavell and his team hope to publish the results of the project so their strategies can be implemented statewide.

 

Making a difference

These projects and more make working for the Oregon State Forestry and Natural Resources Extension Service in Klamath and Lake Counties a fulfilling experience for Leavell. He hopes to see even more results in the future by bringing people together to make our forests and communities healthier.

“I love to sit down at the table and talk to people to see how we can overcome barriers, capitalize on our strengths, shore up our weaknesses and see how we can come together for a common goal that really gets results,” Leavell says. “Extension is in a unique position to facilitate, coordinate and bring partners together to fulfill our mission, which has no underlying agenda other than to benefit the community.”

Wildfire affects water

Kevin Bladon in the field

Large wildfires can devastate the landscape, destroy structures and threaten communities. Once they’re extinguished and the direct threats are gone, the general public often moves on and breathes a little easier. However, Kevin Bladon, assistant professor of forest hydrology at Oregon State, says the effects of large wildfires on water quantity and quality can last for decades.

“Smaller, low severity fires can actually have positive outcomes for aquatic ecosystems,” Bladon says. “However, the larger fires, which we’ve seen more of in recent years, are the ones that cause us the most problems in terms of impacts on water,” Bladon says. “Fires used to be more frequent and less severe, but because of fire suppression and current forest management approaches, there are a lot more contiguous fuels in our forests. When combined with a warmer, drier climate this has increased the occurrence of large wildfires in many parts of the western U.S.”

Bladon says high-severity fire can increase annual streamflow, peak flows and shift the timing of snowmelt to streams to earlier in the year. Additionally, large fires can increase temperatures, sediment and nutrients in streams, which can negatively impact aquatic ecosystems and recreational value.

The sediment and nutrients in headwater streams can also travel downstream and into community drinking water sources.

“While our drinking water treatment plants can, and do, remove sediment, nutrients and other contaminants from our water after wildfires, the question is, ‘How much are we willing to pay for this?’ These are expensive costs that get passed to taxpayers for many years after a fire,” Bladon says.

So far, Bladon’s studies have been conducted in Oregon, California, Colorado, Tennessee and Canada. As large wildfires continue to occur in the West, he plans to keep his eyes and research on the west side of the Cascades.

“Historically, there haven’t been a lot of fires on the west side of the Cascades compared to east side forests,” he says. “But they are appearing more and more, and the potential impacts on our water supply is something researchers need to continue to investigate.”

Bladon says it’s an exciting time to be studying hydrology as it relates to wildfire because the scientific community and the public are striving to understand how large wildfires impact our water supplies.

“Oregonians tend to be very proud of our water, healthy rivers, recreational opportunities and our many breweries, to name a few things,” Bladon says. “Given that two-thirds of our water supply originates in forests, it’s critical to protect those things that make our state such a great place.”

Putting CLT through the fire

“There’s a dirty little secret about wood,” says TallWood Design Institute researcher Lech Muszynski. “It burns.”

Muszynski studies the fire resistance of cross-laminated timber. When discussing this topic, he often refers to a photo from the great San Francisco fire in 1906. In the photo, two melted steel beams lay across a wooden beam.

The beam burned, while the steel softened. But Muszynski says the old photo proves the difference between flammability and fire safety.

“Materials that do not burn may be less fire safe than wood that does burn, but keeps its load bearing capacity much better,” he says. “In this case, the steel lost its load bearing capacity, while the wood, which didn’t burn completely, retains its ability to bear a load and saves the space below from being crushed.”

Despite this evidence from the early 1900s and recent research conducted in Europe, the American public is still concerned about fire when it comes to wooden buildings, and American construction companies don’t have enough data to ensure tall wooden buildings are up to code. Muszynski hopes to provide this data and put minds at ease with his latest research project, which tests the fire resistance of cross-laminated timber floors and walls.

“The point of my project is not to generate new science, but to provide a large-scale demonstration of how cross-laminated timber panels react to fire,” Muszynski says.

When Muszynski says “large scale,” he means it. Many of the panels he tested in a large furnace at the Western Fire Center in Kelso, Washington were too large to be transported in one piece, and had to be assembled on site.

The samples went into the furnace completely unprotected with any kind of fire-proofing materials typically used in wooden construction. Thermocouples, which measure temperature, were attached to the panels to collect data while the panels were exposed to fire.

Muszynski said that each panel experienced similar, gradual and predictable charring rates: the surface of the panels darkened within two minutes, caught fire and eventually a layer of char formed on the surface of the wood.

“Every floor panel we tested survived two hours of fire exposure,” Muszynski says. “After two hours we cut it off and inspected the sample. Only one wall sample failed after 90 minutes, and that’s still pretty good.”

The next step of the project is evaluating the charred samples. For this, Muszynski employed two Oregon State undergraduates.

“At first he tried to talk me out of the job,” says senior forestry student Cassie Holloway. “We were starting in the middle of summer, and doing this kind of heavy manual labor in the heat is pretty difficult.”

But Holloway and her partner prevailed. They cut each sample into one-foot by one-foot samples and evaluated the char depth to ensure consistency with data from the thermocouples.

Holloway first heard about CLT in her junior seminar class and was immediately intrigued.

“Growing up, I was very interested in conservation and sustainability,” Hollway says. “I think it’s awesome that people are using renewable materials to build up instead of out. I was really excited to be able to work on this project.”

Once sampling is completed, Muszynski says he will work to create a map of the char depth of each sample. Next, he hopes to test the fire resistance of connections used in CLT construction.

“Our ultimate goal is to make the TallWood Design Institute the one-stop place for testing anything mass-timber including CLT and glulam and whatever comes next,” Muszynski says. “This must include fire testing.”