Students are helping rebuild and recover from wildfires

Planting tree seedlings

Last Labor Day, the blue, late summer skies around Eugene and Springfield began to turn brown as a wildfire suddenly blew up east of town along the McKenzie River corridor.

The Holiday Farm Fire, named for a resort near Blue River about 50 miles from campus, exploded in tinder-dry conditions and burned for more than a month, consuming 173,000 acres, destroying more than 400 homes and casting a pall of choking smoke over much of the Willamette Valley.

The communities along the river have begun to rebuild and recover, with the help of relief organizations, community members and volunteers.

Among those helping with recovery have been fraternity members at the UO, who have gone upriver nearly every weekend of spring term to help residents clean up their properties, removing some 400,000 pounds of metal debris and numerous bags of ash and other material, said Zak Gosa-Lewis, assistant director of fraternity and sorority life at the UO and adviser to the Interfraternity Council.

In another effort to help residents recover from the fires, 14 fraternity members from nine different chapters spent a recent Saturday planting trees that will later be made available to people recovering from the fires.

In a single day, the students, joined by community volunteers, planted 4,500 yearling Douglas fir, Noble fir and hemlock trees at Valor Farms near Walterville that will be used to help with reforestation efforts along the McKenzie corridor and other regions affected by last fall’s wildfires. Over five days, volunteers planted nearly 20,000 trees, which will be replanted not just along the McKenzie River but in other regions hard it by fires.

“For me, it made me proud to be part of a community like the Interfraternity Council,” said Tommy Douglas, a sophomore from Lafayette and president of the council. “When you’re planting trees, it reminds you of the impact a group of people can have. It’s powerful.”

The trees were donated by the Weyerhaeuser and Stimson timber companies. They were surplus and would have ended up in the landfill. The trees were shipped in thick cardboard bags, each one holding 125 or 250 yearlings. Once open they have to be planted in a matter of hours.

“A lot of people are not ready to plant on their land yet,” said Jenny Stewart, a co-owner of Valor Farms. “We’re holding them temporarily until people are ready.”

The fraternity members “did a great job,” Stewart said. “They were fantastic.”

The effort was coordinated by Cascade Relief Team, a nonprofit organization established in the wake of last fall’s catastrophic fires, which affected multiple regions around Oregon.

The UO fraternities have been “a huge help, a driving force in helping, especially in Blue River,” said Marc Brooks, president of Cascade Relief Team. “The good they have done is absolutely incredible. It means a lot to see young people want to get involved.”

By Tim Christie, University Communications