DNR, veterans organization help homeowner improve wildfire safety

When Chris Mastel was in the Marines, he had a sense of purpose every day, a clear mission to accomplish. It was something he missed when his time in the military ended.

“As soon as I got out – not having a purpose, no mission every day – it was a struggle for me,” said Mastel, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for eight years.

Mastel’s councilor at the local veteran’s center recommended he check out Veterans Community Response, a nonprofit organization based in the Spokane area that helps veterans adjust to life after returning home from combat. Comprised entirely of volunteers, the organization fosters teamwork and camaraderie and helps veterans develop skills in a variety of areas – even in helping rural homeowners reduce wildfire risk on their property.

Investing in forest health, wildfire safety

Some members of Veterans Community Response are firefighters in the area so they were aware of the severity of the wildfire threat and saw an opportunity to help reduce that threat. About a year ago, Veterans Community Response contacted the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to find out how they could help. The veterans took wildfire chainsaw training and forest health classes covering tree identification, tree health, and forest thinning practices. They also learned of small forest landowners who needed help with forest restoration work.

One of those landowners was Dave Taskila who owns about 6 acres of heavily vegetated forest in the Spokane area, dense with lodge pole pine and ponderosa thickets.

“This area had burnt in 1991 – before we bought the land – in a firestorm, so I figured it would happen again,”he said.

Taskila knew he should get his house and the surrounding land assessed for wildfire risk and applied to DNR’s cost-sharing program for small-forest landowners. The program is typically a 50/50 cost-share to help landowners complete forest health work on their property. The landowner can hire someone to do the work and DNR will pay half of the fee, or the landowner can do the work themselves and be reimbursed for half the value of their labor.

Veterans run tree limbs through wood chipper
Veterans Community Response volunteers remove brush, low limbs, and smaller trees to restore forest health and reduce wildfire risk in the Four Mound community of Spokane County on May 5, 2018 – National Wildfire Preparedness Day. The nonprofit tackled this project after working on Dave Taskila’s land.

This program is a valuable tool for DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which aims to actively manage our forests, restoring them to a more natural and resilient condition.

After Taskila was accepted into the program, a forester came to his home, assessed his trees, and showed him what needed done to bring his forest to a healthier, more resilient state. The grant he received required that he finish the work within two years.

Taskila didn’t do much the first year, because he didn’t think the project would be that difficult – that is until he and his grandson started thinning trees and clearing brush. What they found was closely bunched trees and dense understory. He was about halfway through the project when he learned volunteers from Veterans Community Response could help him finish his project before the approaching deadline.

The project on Taskila’s land was the first forest health and fuels reduction project Veterans Community Response worked on, and it was the ideal site to start with because it was close to town while still being very overgrown.

“This property had not been thinned in quite some time and it was a thicket of pine. Nothing was growing in a healthy manner,” the organization’s president, Darrin Coldiron, said.

About 20 volunteers worked to thin the remaining 3 acres, with usually about six veterans working each day. The project took about a month to finish.

When the veterans finished the project within the timeline allocated by the grant, Taskila was extremely pleased with the work accomplished. “They ended up doing the worst part of the property. Even though it’s flat down there, it was really bad and thick,” he said.

Taskila donated his DNR cost-share money to the nonprofit in appreciation of their labor, allowing the organization to pay for more equipment, protective gear, and training, plus member retreats and recruiting.

Veterans Community Response is working on six similar forest health projects. It’s the type of collaboration that Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who heads DNR, speaks about the state needing.

“With creative and collaborative approaches we can restore the health to our forests and reduce wildfire risk, keeping the Evergreen State true to its name,” Franz said. “I am proud of the important work being done by our veterans, our small forest landowners, DNR, and other partners.”

For the veterans, the rewards are close to home. Not only are they giving back to their community in ways that have the power to prevent a devastating wildfire, they’re also able to pass that sense of achievement onto new members.

Veterans take a break from working to pose for a photo
Volunteers take a well-deserved break from thinning and brush removal during a project in the Four Mound area in May.

“We’re getting veterans back involved in the community,” said Mike Patterson, a veteran and member of the nonprofit. “Most combat vets tend to isolate when they come home, so this is a great way of getting them back involved and completing a project.”

Mastel, the Marine vet, attended a retreat put on by the nonprofit and found that sense of purpose he was searching for after retiring from the military. He decided to join the staff and devote some of his time to helping the organization with events and projects. He was one of the project leads on Taskila’s land and was pleased with the work he and the group accomplished.

“I had no idea what we were in for, but when we finished it looked amazing,” Mastel said.

And all of this work means all the more when community members like Taskila are so positively affected by the nonprofit’s work and happy with the final result.

“I can actually use some of (my land) and walk through it,” Taskila said, laughing. “It turned out great, I’m pleased.”