Jaren Breault chops wood on a blustery Saturday at the Jackson County Fuel Committee’s lot north of Ashland. - Julia Moore

A fire in the belly

Bill Jennett is typical of the people who power the Jackson County Fuel Committee through the winter, bringing firewood to the poor, elderly and children of mostly rural families.

The operations manager of JCFC, Jennett was out there on a recent Saturday in a driving storm at the woodlot on Eagle Mill Road in Ashland, cheerfully directing the bucking, splitting, loading and delivering of big rounds of donated wood — and he does it for free.

"We need more wood and we need more volunteers," yells Jennett, as a dozen volunteers from Southern Oregon University's Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week warm themselves on burning slash wood and drive mauls and wedges into a pile of fir donated from the Bill Epstein property above Ashland.

The students chuck firewood into big pickups, which roll out every half-hour bound for low-income families in the Applegate, Sams Valley and Upper Rogue who have run out of ways to pay mounting utility bills, Jennett says.

"We've got more requests than we're able to fill," he says. "There's been a real surge this year in demand for firewood — 25 percent over last year. It's 20 to 25 requests a week, and we're only driving about 20 truckloads out of here."

The issue is that energy costs have gone up across the board, says Jennett, who volunteers seven days a week during the cold season.

"Pacific Power is up 30 percent from 2009, so that's just an automatic $20 a month taken out of your pocket, money you need for food and transportation," he says. "As a result, we've got clients who used to be donors — and now they're getting help from us."

The Hunger and Homelessness program has rounded up 40 volunteer students at SOU, says its coordinator, Sophia Mantheakis. Students are chopping enough firewood for five families, fulfilling a required service project, and learning about people who live in extreme poverty in Southern Oregon.

"It's exciting watching my volunteers grow, learn to handle firewood and become sure of themselves," says Mantheakis. "Most think they can't chop wood, but after a while at it, and seeing how they're really helping people, it's very empowering and connects them with the community and the resources available here."

"It feels really good," says SOU volunteer Maia Halverson, "everyone helping in such high spirits and seeing change happen before our eyes."

Another volunteer, Annie Laurie Jennett, says, "It feels great to meet needs that need to be met. So many people are getting their power shut off, and they need wood today."

JCFC uses no government funding and never turns any firewood seekers away. All they ask, says Bill Jennett, is that clients join the committee's efforts and, if they can, start volunteering to help others who need firewood. They also can help the committee advocate for those whose power is about to be shut off because they can't pay their bills.

The committee lobbies city councils and the state Public Utility Commission to oppose shutting off power to delinquent, low-income users during icy winter months.

Volunteers are needed to interview clients and "go to bat for them" with Pacific Power for heating assistance funds it receives from ratepayers via a checkoff for the needy on utility forms, Jennett says.

"It's not easy to get release of those funds," says Jennett, "and I don't know of a single case where a ratepayer has gotten those funds without a volunteer advocating for them."

Although Ashland recently increased power rates, Jennett says, JCFC works closely with city staff and has not seen any power shutoffs this year. The city provides up to $300 total in credits over a three-month period to qualifying residents.

The all-volunteer JCFC, says Jennett, serves many elderly, needy couples and cancer patients in rural areas who can't get their own firewood.

He says the committee needs volunteers to deliver firewood and donate vehicles and gasoline to get it to needy families. To volunteer, call 541-488-2905.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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