One of Camp Howard’s goats takes a break from clearing the camp’s forests of excess biomass. In addition to helping keep the camp safe from wildfires, the goats are popular with campers. (Courtesy CYO/Camp Howard)
One of Camp Howard’s goats takes a break from clearing the camp’s forests of excess biomass. In addition to helping keep the camp safe from wildfires, the goats are popular with campers. (Courtesy CYO/Camp Howard)
After the winds began on Labor Day, Sept. 7, 2020, Karen von Borstel, property director at Camp Howard, kept a weeklong vigil, guarding against potential trouble at the camp.

“For six or seven days she was awake 24-7,” said CYO/Camp Howard executive board member Doug Bomarito.

The power had gone out, but von Borstel got a generator going — and she’d made plenty of coffee. Outside it was smoky.

“Tuesday morning I got up early and got out there to see what all had happened,” she emailed her sister, St. Mary of Oregon Sister Krista von Borstel. “Something, which I call God, said go down Camp Howard Rd.,” she wrote.

She soon came across the first tree down blocking the road. A 75-foot-tall hemlock had downed power lines.

She and another staff member limbed the tree, cut it into logs and freed the line.

Von Borstel asked a neighbor to set up the pump at the swimming pool, crowded with downed branches, to fill a water tank fixed on a pickup for fire suppression.

She decided to take out another tree blocking a road in case they needed that road for escape. “By night the smoke from the fire closest to us was just amazing,” she wrote.

The group came across a Portland General Electric crew, and she took them to the downed power line.

More neighbors evacuated and von Borstel took in some of their livestock at the camp.

She began worrying about the broken power line, wondering if PGE had hooked it up. “Again … that voice I call God talking to me,” she wrote.

Von Borstel checked the lines and smelled acrid smoke close by. She and neighbors searched and found the source of the smell: a smoldering section of line in a mowed area.

They called 911 with a phone von Borstel had charged with the generator. The Corbett Fire Department arrived — “and we got it out before we had another massive wildfire on our hands, so I am calling it a win!” she wrote.

As it turned out, there were only three fires in the devastating 2020 Oregon fire season that came within 3 miles of the Bull Run Watershed. The one on Camp Howard Road was one of them.

Camp Howard’s forests are less likely to burn because from 2011 to 2013 the Oregon Department of Forestry worked on fuel reduction (the removal of flammable brush in the forest) around the camp. Before that, camp leadership and supporters had been clearing the underbrush since 2008.

Most recently, von Borstel attended a community meeting where a speaker from the department of forestry encouraged landowners to clear defensible spaces. She knew she wanted Camp Howard to be part of that effort — although other camps did not sign on.

The department of forestry returned to Camp Howard and advised how to clear defensible spaces. There are now areas from where a forest fire could be fought. “Prior to that, the department of forestry would not have attempted to fight a fire here in the camp,” said von Borstel. “This will now be the first line of defense against fire coming out of the Bull Run Watershed.”

The latest crews on the brush-clearing brigade at Camp Howard are among the most popular with campers.

Twenty-one goats now do the work that chain saws once performed. “The goats are doing a great job,” said von Borstel.

Bomarito and the rest of CYO/Camp Howard leadership are determined that the careful forestry that kept Camp Howard safe in 2020 will continue into the future.

“I feel like we’re cutting edge,” said Sister Krista.

And cutting teeth, the goats might add.