Wednesday, October 29, 2014

AmeriCorps in Pateros

On Saturday October 25th, every healthy and able AmeriCorps member in the country took part in a required day of service called Make a Difference Day. This is a day when AmeriCorps volunteers, regardless of their volunteer site, join a team of fellow AmeriCorps members in “getting things done” within the community. That could mean painting over graffiti, framing a house after a fire, or in our case rebuilding deer fences on orchards that were destroyed in the massive Carlton Complex Fire in Pateros.
Many of us will remember the 2014 fires. It affected all of us in one way or another. We heard story after heart-wrenching story about families who lost everything, who should get the blame for such a catastrophe and the sheer economic cost of such a disaster. But now, in late October, how many of us are still thinking about these issues? How many of us can honestly say that we think of the fires daily, much less deal with their consequences every day? The fires are out. The media has long since shifted their focus. Air quality is back to normal. For most, it’s back to life as usual. Not for those who live in Pateros and areas affected by the fires. I will not make any futile attempt at describing their current situation; suffice it to say, deer fences are but a fingernail scratch on the tip of the iceberg.

Deer fences are as important to an orchardist as a sharp saw to a lumberjack. Without them deer would greatly reduce yields every year, making a deer fence an excellent one time investment of time and money. The orchards we were helping out on Saturday lost significant portions of their fences, yet luckily their trees were still standing. With frozen ground and snow just around the corner, the time for repairing and in some places replacing fencing is dwindling. That’s where 34 AmeriCorps volunteers come in. By splitting our group in two we were able to help two orchards pull down damaged fencing, remove debris, trim obstructing brush, dig fence post holes and set fence posts.

At the end of the day every member of our group was dirty and tired. We left the orchards with blistered hands, tired backs and humbled egos. There were 34 of us, mostly young and able volunteers who spent a day helping out two orchards repair several hundred yards of fencing. In an area 4 times the size of Seattle. Whose primary industry is agriculture. The amount of physical and emotional repair needed in this area is ineffable. That said, and at the risk of sounding tacky, I feel comfortable speaking for the group when I say we made a difference on Make a Difference Day.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is your compost going into Torpor?

With the mild fall weather we’re experiencing it’s likely that winter will sneak up on us. Too often I've found myself unprepared for all that winter brings. But not this year. This year will be different. I will replace my windshield wipers before it snows, I will pull out all the dead leaves from the gutters and I will coil and stow my hoses. Another cold weather preparation I've been considering is that of ‘winterizing’ my compost pile.

This is the first compost I've truly been in charge of. I built it out of free pallets, found just the right spot for it in the back yard and convinced my suspicious roommates that it was a good idea to pile food scraps in a pallet box in our yard. I’m more emotionally invested in this thing than is probably healthy.

So with the cold coming on, albeit slowly, I've been looking for ways to keep the decomposition going strong. There is no denying the cold weather its victims, but I’m hoping the tiny little organisms in my backyard pile won’t go entirely into torpor.

The easiest thing we can do to protect bacteria in our compost during winter cold is to make the heap bigger. Literally, all you have to do is add more stuff for the bacteria to eat. A larger pile will stay warmer than a smaller pile. Simple as that. To do this I've raked every leaf from my yard and at the risk of sounding like a crazy person I’m going to ask my neighbors if they have plans for their leaves and grass clippings. Luckily my compost is already a bit heavy on the nitrogen and light on the carbon, so leaves will give me a better ratio. You should consider nitrogen and carbon balances before going wild with the notion of bulking up your pile for winter.

Another easy method for keeping your bacteria warm and hungry during the winter is adding a lid. While some of you may have purchased your composter with a lid or crafted one yourself, many compost piles are just that, piles. If you have one of these more open style, heap composts, it may behoove you to throw a tarp over your pile or better yet block it in and add a lid. This will hold the heat in and keep the frost off.

My final suggestion is a good idea regardless of the season. Shredding your material into particles less than two inches in size can make decomposition easier and will allow your pile to build up evenly. It will also make your pile denser and thus better insulated.

If this post has stirred your curiosity about composting or if it’s something you've been considering, I encourage you to build your own. For me it was an activity ripe with intrinsic reward and fostered a compulsion to throw as little as possible into the trash bin.  If you need some inspiration, there are countless do-it-yourself designs to be found on the web.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

This year Washingtonians saw the worst fire season in some time. The Carlton Complex burned its way into our psyche as the largest fire in state history, burning over 256,000 acres and destroying about 300 homes. Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency. Washington fires were frequently feature stories in national news. Needless to say, we are all anxious for the end of fire season.   

It may be common place for the residents of North Central Washington, but as an outsider it’s been strange to see more smoky days than clear skies in September. A question for all the long time locals-do you remember seeing so many smoky days five years ago? 10 years ago? 20 years ago? Likely your answer is “no, No, NO!”

It’s no secret that in the Pacific Northwest we've seen a significant increase in the size and severity of wild fires in the last decade. Contributing factors to the uptick include forest management techniques, the growing population and increased development in wildland areas. Another undeniable contributor, climate change, is no longer something the greater scientific world is divided on. So I won’t spend any time highlighting facts to prove it. Instead, let’s consider what climate change means for the fire seasons to come.

It’s easy to say warmer weather results in higher fire danger and be done with it. But after digging a little deeper a layman, like myself, will find that there’s much more to climate change than just hotter, drier conditions. In every article I read on the subject, one common theme is longer fire seasons. With an earlier than average snow melt and warmer temperatures later in the fall, forests are at risk much longer than in the past. 50 years ago the snowpack in the Pacific Northwest melted about four weeks later than in recent years. With a shorter, less sustained melt off, forests have a relatively small window of sufficient moisture.

Mountain Pine Beetle
A lesser known yet equally exasperating effect climate change has on the fire season is the increase in fuel. Dead trees make the best fuel source for large scale wild fires. Tree killing insects like the pine
beetle have a high survival rate during mild winters, and drier conditions allow for widespread insect infestations. Ipso facto, climate change has allowed tree munching insects to turn swaths of forest into giant tinder boxes.

Even lesser known is the effect of increased risk of lightning. Not surprisingly, lightning is the cause of tens of thousands of fires each year. The likelihood of lightning increases as the temperature rises. According to the National Wildlife Federation’s website, for every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit increase lightning strikes are 6% more likely. So if our current warming trends continue, we will see an increase in lightning and lightning caused fires.

As there is no way to stomp the brakes on the climate change bus, we’re going to have to learn to live with its worsening effects. However, considering the difficulty in predicting climate change in the future, wise resource management is much easier to say than do. There is so much that we don’t understand about climate change that it can be hard to distinguish between right and wrong practices.

As tough as it may be to predict the future, one of the best  resources on climate change effects attempts to do just that. The NWCC, or Northwest Interagency Coordination Center website (if the name befuddles you as it did me, follow the link and read up!) has a plethora of reports, predictive data and helpful links. Those looking for more information, or those who are skeptical about information obtained from a layperson’s blog, may find this website handy. Particularly interesting to me was the seasonal outlook video.

The NWCC late summer and fall climate and significant fire outlook video offers information rich graphics with helpful narration.