Texas Conservation Corps at the Bastrop Wildfire Academy

The Firefighter Training & Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior (S130/190) course conducted by the Capital Area Interagency Wildfire & Incident Management Academy was an extremely rewarding experience. Myself along with 9 other members of the Texas Conservation Corps were provided the opportunity to learn about the expanding world of wildland firefighting. Our instructors- Larry Weaver, Willie Mcinnes and Mark Elliot—are experienced professionals who used hands-on experiences to teach us.  During the first few days, we learned about the most important factors of predicting fire behavior and how conditions on a fire can change from minute to minute and hour to hour. Even though there were a lot of technical aspects of fire behavior analysis our instructors taught us practical skills, such as using a sling psychrometer to measure relative humidity, and how Relative Humidity affects the fire’s fuel and burn behavior.  Each day built on the previous day’s knowledge and we were challenged to think critically about how fire behavior adapts, not only with weather conditions, but also due to the terrain. Depending on where a fire starts, we learned about how natural geographic features, such as box canyons, saddle backs and other terrain elements can accelerate the fire’s spread and intensity. Our instructor’s taught us fire vocabulary but also to use natural barriers within an environment (such as roads, waterways, and rocky areas) as anchor points to fight fire. I can hear our instructors now: “work smarter not harder!”

When we transitioned to the fire fighting portion of our course (S190) we simulated a fire camp and were able to participate in the construction of a fire line and a prescribed burn. You know the saying, “you don’t fight fire with fire?” Well, in wildland fire fighting this just isn’t true. In the classroom we learned that fire creates its own weather conditions, but in the field we were able to see how setting a fire within the constructed fireline can use the convective properties of fire—drawing it to itself—and how this actually extinguishes the fire. The fireline construction, fuel reduction and “mop up” were the most exciting aspects of the course. In our Nomex suites and full protective gear we constructed a fire line using the one-lick method. Each person, wielding a different tool, scratched out a small portion of the fire line until the line is down to mineral soil. Working with my fellow classmates, I could sense the camaraderie that develops on a fire crew. As we walked, each one of us pointed to widow makers and stump holes, preventing the crew from slowing down and ensuring each member’s safety. Once the fireline was complete, the instructors allowed me to light a fusee to begin the fire. Once the fire was going we could observe fire behavior and use the tactics learned in the classroom to extinguish the fire by drawing it to itself and eliminating unburnt fuel. The S130/S190 course was an exciting and extremely engaging experience with which to end my year.

LaJuan D. Tucker, SLA Crew Leader 

Texas Conservation Corps Completes Work on Emma Long

“One man’s unsustainable corrosion is another man’s righteous gnar.”

-from an online comment expressing the delicate balance and frustration involved when incorporating erosion control and environmental protection into a well-established and well-loved trail system. 


Emma Long Metropolitan Park is one of the largest parks in Austin, TX and it has, perhaps, the only motorcycle trail in the whole city.  In fact, its one of only a few motorized trails on public land in the entire state.  There are 9 miles of trail winding through juniper and oak scrub forest, allowing motorcyclists and mountain bike riders to test their skills on some pretty intense, but somehow still serene, terrain.  It’s full of steep hills and sudden drops down rocky terraces, sharp corners and low hanging trees, punctuated by flowing tracts of even tread under a dense, green canopy. All of it perfect for doing tricks on motorbikes: in short, it’s a motorcycle paradise.

We, the Service Learning Academy Green and Yellow crews, had the opportunity to spend a month there doing rock-work from late January to March 1st. The short time span we were given to complete the project was due to the presence of the Golden Cheeked Warbler, an endangered species of song bird residing in Central Texas, beginning its nesting season. The Migratory Bird and Endangered Species Acts stipulate that their nesting areas cannot be disturbed during the season; though, I often wondered how disturbing our crews would have been compared to the noise made by a motorbike!

We were given 29 sites scattered throughout the trail system that needed work done to prevent erosion and fix other kinds of damage, and ended up completing 27 of them in the very short amount of time available to us. Most of the work consisted of armoring the sudden drops along the trail, which means that we laid large, flat rocks into the ground as if we were placing tiles in a floor.  We also made rock ramps (the first time I’ve ever built with rock that way!) to allow the non-expert riders to get through, and made step and wall-like structures to check the erosion that was occuring on the trail.

Our work at Emma Long was unusual for us in the fact that we were exclusively building for bikes (motorcycles and mountain bikes), as opposed to hikers, horseback riders, etc. By far, they were the most involved group of trail users I’ve ever encountered. Many of them get together often for weekend trail repair workdays and some offered regular friendly and constructive comments.  Unfortunately, not all of our users were happy with the prospect of the city hiring us to work on their park.  Some days angry trail users would ride through and insult our work … but then, as if to demonstrate the duality, they’d be followed not five minutes later by someone who was thrilled with the quality of what we were doing.  The subtitle of this post itself comes from an online debate on the methods and goals of the work done at Emma Long.  The coveted “gnar” factor sought by mountain bikers and motorized users can push a trail to the edge of a hillside or on climbs up through a tight-walled creek bottom, both fairly unsustainable routes.  The challenge of the the trail builder and designer is to keep the “gnar” alive while building a sustainable trail tread that will stand the test of time and nature.  And that’s always going to be a exciting challenge at Emma Long or anywhere else.    We’re proud of the hundreds of hours our team put in at Emma Long and hope that time will show the value of those techniques.

Charles Edmonson, Crew Leader

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Student Learning Academy at United Way Day of Caring

A few months ago, I decided to join Austin AmeriCorps Alums despite the fact that I am currently serving as a crew leader with the Environmental Corps. Prior to this position, I worked with AmeriCorps VISTA in Ithaca, NY and AmeriCorps NCCC at the Perry Point, MD campus. I was disheartened to find the Austin AmeriCorps Alums chapter floundering. I decided to become a chapter leader and infuse the group with my AmeriCorps passion. Our first big event was going to be the United Way Day of Caring on September 14th. However, the event fell on a Friday and our members were unable to attend. I saw a local event that needed volunteers and immediately thought of our SLA crews.

When I contacted Hands on Central Texas about the event, Nikki Krueger, Director of Volunteer Engagement- Hands on Central Texas, was ecstatic. She knew all about E-Corps and was excited to get us going. Later on, when it had rained heavily on the workday, she said that E-Corps was the one group of volunteers she could count on to not complain.

On the day of the event, our students attended a luncheon at The Long Center for the Performing Arts. Our members ate amazing catered food on tables with pristine white table clothes, which blew their minds, and networked with many influential community members. One of the speakers , took the time to recognize E-Corps’ work in Bastrop. She is a Bastrop resident and praised our organizations efforts.

While on site at J.J. Pickle Elementary School, members were divided into several groups. We weeded vegetable and butterfly gardens, transplanted plants, mulched trees and shrubs, built benches, weeded a Peace Garden, improved their compost system, and set up time-lapse cameras.

Our site sponsor, Judith Hutchinson, teacher at J.J. Pickle Elementary School, was welcoming and appreciative of our work. She also has received several grants for garden beds, decks, permaculture, and rain gardens. She invited us to come assist her with the rain garden and we, in turn, invited her to come to American YouthWorks.

We learned a lot while volunteering for the United Way Day of Caring but we gave even more.

Nicki Dunne, SLA Crew Leader

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Service Learning Academy works with Habitat with Humanity

As an Environmental Corps Crew Leader, I am accustomed to working hard and getting sweaty, but its usually in the context of a park, woodland, or forest. On June 6th, the SLA Crew Leaders and Members got a taste of a different kind of hard work, when we volunteered for the day with Habitat for Humanity (H4H).
The first and most noticeable difference was the start time. We usually get to school at 7:45-8am, but we needed to get to school at 7am for an early start with H4H. When we arrived at the jobsite, we were greeted by a longtime volunteer named Bill who had been volunteering with H4H for over 10 years. We received a brief orientation from Bree and Billy, the project managers, and they talked about safety, gave us some vocabulary for the tools and building materials, and emphasized that we would be working in controlled chaos, but it would all work out wonderfully.
We then started the first step of building the house- raising the first exterior frame. This is a special moment, and Yosef, the man whose house we were building, had a huge smile on his face as we lifted the frame high and set it in with the nail guns and bracing. Yosef had contributed over 400 hours of sweat equity in order to qualify for getting his own house, and had volunteered with H4H during the daytime, then went to his job as a night cab driver in the evening. This was a happy day for him, and he was beaming.
Then the real work began. We all had different jobs, and we worked under the supervision of the longtime volunteers and a few AmeriCorps members with H4H. They were really fun to work with, and we swapped stories and talked about our various AmeriCorps positions. We raised framing for the house, secured it with bracing and with nail guns, we raised the roof framing, and we wrapped the house in insulation. Everything had to be done in a special order so it would all fit together, and everything had to be precise and level.
It was very hot working hard in the sun. There was no shade to speak of, and the concrete slab of the foundation radiated heat. I found myself chugging water even more furiously than I usually do on the trail. The repetitive motion of the nailing and holding things steady made my muscles ache. It was physically demanding work, that also required mental focus. At the end of the day, we said our goodbyes to Yosef and the other volunteers. It was a good feeling to have put in a hard days work for a good cause, and we learned many carpentry skills which can help us be more technically proficient with our regular ECorps work. All in all, it was  good to take a step back from our regular job, and I think we all gained a fresh  perspective that will aid us in our future work.
 Madeline Enos, SLA E-Corps crew Leader

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SLA Environmental Corps Partners with the City of Austin

The City of Austin gave the SLA Environmental Corps the opportunity to do GIS/GPS training for a 6 week long project. Six members were selected to go out in the field throughout the neighborhoods collecting data for damaged sidewalks, curbs, and gutters, water collecting by curbs, and plotting trees. Geographic Information Systems work on the simple premises that almost every form of data can be related to a map or other forms of easily understandable graphics.

The main purpose of Geographic Information Systems involves assembling, storing, manipulating, and displaying data in a database that is identifiable according to locations, with a view that every object on the Earth’s surface can be easily geo-referenced. Data collection, like GIS, allows you to integrate data that has been collected at different times, at different scales, and using different methods of data collection. Sources of data include maps on paper or transparency, written data, digital files, and information stored in human memory. The reason we are doing this is so we can make our city a better place and safer for people by following the regulations of the ADA; such as information on damages so the City of Austin can understand what needs to be done for safety hazards. Uneven sidewalks can be tripping hazards; dead trees can cause accidents by falling and causing serious damage to people or property.

I’ve learned so much since I have been in training such as how to use the GPS device. It actually wasn’t that hard, it’s just like using a phone. I learned a lot more about identifying trees and realizing how bad some neighborhoods can be with their repairs. Trees damage sidewalks by outgrowing the cement and can crack curbs which can be torn off into big chips. This is my experience so far with the City of Austin GIS/GPS training. I am looking forward to getting further opportunities with the City.

Jessica Rodriguez, SLA Crew Member

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Service Learning Academy finishes Zilker Nature Preserve Project

After two months of hard and diligent work, the Service Learning Academy Crew finally wrapped up an epic trail project within the Zilker Nature Preserve.  The students had the opportunity to learn new technical skills including masonry, stonework, and basic trail maintence while improving a beautiful park in Austin.

The project was funded by a generous grant awarded to the Preserve, providing the trail with many enhancements to its use, features and enjoyment by those who hike the trail. Located right outside the Zilker Nature and Science Center off Barton Springs road, the preserve is several acres of secluded wilderness that includes a diverse range of plant and animal species and the winding Medicine Wheel Creek, flowing through a scenic canyon after spring showers.

The work itself spanned simple trail maintenance to highly technical rock work. Several stair cases were built and involved planning and moving rocks weighing up to half a ton. One stair case deemed “Stairway to Heaven” by a student, took several weeks to complete.

The crew also had the opportunity to revamp an old Civilian Conservation Corps built in the 1930’s that leads to a magnificent lookout of downtown Austin. Though rumored haunted, the nearly vanished trail was brought back to life by the students and received many improvements, such as switchbacks, boxsteps, and waterbars to ease the adventurer up the often steep terrain of the path.

After a ceremony and celebration of the completion of the project, the Service Learning Academy has several fun projects to look forward to going into the future, including more stonework at Reimer’s Ranch and a trail in Big Bend National Park.

Get out and check out the trail this weekend before it’s too hot!

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SLA Member of the Month spends a week in the Davis Mtns with Texas Trail Tamers

I worked with the Central Texas Trail Tamers which was one of the best experiences of my life. We worked on the Davis Mountains Preserve building a trail going all the way around the side of a mountain side. I had a lot of fun out there with the views and the people; all of which were atleast 70 yrs old and up! The work we did out there was hard but fun and tiring. We got 1/4 of a mile done while we were out there and that’s good for how rocky it was and for how many big deep rocks I had to rockbar out or crush with a double jack. All and all I had a blast working with the Central Texas Trail Tamers and in the Davis Mountains Preserve building an equestrian trail. (I have never built one before!)

-SLA member