An afternoon rainsquall Thursday did little to deter groups of young adults from rushing to greet visitors and help them unload large piles of yard waste at Knott Landfill.

As part of FireFree, a nine-day program spearheaded by Deschutes County to help communities prepare for fire season, county residents have the opportunity to deposit scrub brush, pine needles and other flammable waste from their yards at the landfill for free, through Sunday. As in previous years, young adults from the Heart of Oregon Corps, a nonprofit group that provides vocational training and continuing education opportunities to Central Oregonians between the ages of 18 and 24, sped up the process. They hustled to help drivers, using pitchforks and hoes to move the debris.

“It’s just one of many types of projects we do in the community, but it’s one that we always love,” said Laura Handy, the group’s executive director.

For Deschutes County, it’s a chance to help residents dispose of material that can easily catch fire and engulf homes in flames during dry summer months. FireFree began 20 years ago, after the Skeleton Fire claimed nearly 20 homes outside Bend, according to The Bulletin’s archives.

FireFree, which began Saturday and runs through this Sunday, provides steps on how homeowners can create a space free of flammable material around their home by getting rid of wood piles, brush and other items. While dumping yard waste typically costs residents $4 per cubic yard, the process is free during FireFree, according to Timm Schimke, director of Deschutes County’s department of solid waste.

Last year, the county processed 23,000 cubic yards of waste during FireFree week from Knott Landfill, a collection site in southwest Bend and rural collection sites throughout Central Oregon, Schimke said. Knott Landfill can receive waste from about 1,000 cars per day during FireFree weekends, and working with Heart of Oregon Corps helps the landfill shorten the time visitors have to wait, Schimke said.

“They’re a critical part in all this,” he said.

And for Heart of Oregon Corps, which began working with the Deschutes County Department of Solid Waste in 2000, the partnership with Knott Landfill is one of several opportunities to help young adults in the program develop skills they’ll need in the workforce, from customer service to simple discipline.

“We’re helping train a work ethic,” Handy said. “The ability to show up on time, ready to go.”

In exchange for working on projects for six months, workers receive a stipend to live on and around $2,800 they can put toward educational opportunities, Handy said. Numbers vary throughout the year, but Heart of Oregon Corps served 324 youth last year, 54 percent of whom were classified as low-income, according to the organization’s annual report.

Heart of Oregon worker Joe Whitlatch, 22, said his job primarily consists of chatting with visitors at the landfill while he helps unload their trailers. Every so often, he gets to see something unique, like the man who brought a trailer filled with five years’ worth of pine needles.

“Between me and four other people, it probably took a good, solid hour to unload,” Whitlach said.

Connie Weger, 23, said she found out about the program a year ago. This has been her second FireFree event, and she said she’s looking forward to using her education fund to become a veterinary technician and take some photography classes.

“It’s just a really great program to get some work experience,” Weger said.

Heart of Oregon Corps will continue to assist visitors to Knott Landfill through Sunday. Free disposal will be available at the west-side collection site in Bend on Friday and Saturday, and disposal will be available at rural transfer stations in Deschutes County during weekends later in May and into early June. Check www.firefree.org/firefreeevents for more details.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The original version misstated the dates of yard debris collection at the west Bend collection site. The Bulletin regrets the error.

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