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County tackling flammable vegetation along Bear Creek Greenway

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneBear Creek Greenway users go past a hazardous tree that was cut along the path.
Crews work to stop blackberry thickets, weeds from regrowing

Jackson County is in a race against blackberry brambles and other flammable vegetation that is regrowing along the Bear Creek Greenway after last fall's Almeda fire.

Jackson County commissioners have authorized spending $457,000 to fight fast-growing greenery on county land that otherwise would pose a threat in the coming fire season.

"You can literally go out there, and in a week's time, see it grow six inches," said Jackson County Parks Program Manager Steve Lambert.

The September 2020 Almeda fire destroyed approximately 2,500 homes on its path from Ashland to the outskirts of Medford. Along the way, it consumed swaths of flammable vegetation along the Bear Creek Greenway, including blackberries and poison hemlock.

Cutting back vegetation now and spraying herbicide in certain areas to stop new growth is more cost-effective than battling thickets and tall weeds after they’ve taken over.

"The more that we can keep them from growing back now, that's going to make it way less expensive to keep those areas cleared in the future," Lambert said.

The county is partnering with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Rogue River Watershed Council and other organizations to reduce fire danger, he said.

Even before county commissioners approved spending $457,000 to reduce Greenway fuels, county park crews had treated 40 acres south of U.S. Cellular Community Park between Medford and Phoenix, Lambert said.

"So now that we have these additional funds, we're going to be looking to put that money into projects immediately with our partners to do some more clearing and continue the control of invasive species regrowth in the burned areas and the areas that we treat," he said.

In the long term, the county is working with cities, the Oregon Department of Transportation, private landowners and others to develop a comprehensive plan for dealing with flammable vegetation along the Greenway, which cuts across multiple jurisdictions.

However, that plan won't be ready before fire season strikes this year, said County Administrator Danny Jordan.

All the affected jurisdictions are dealing with the same problem that there is no designated funding stream to deal with fire danger along the Greenway, Jordan said.

Central Point, for example, is surveying its residents about the possibility of a utility fee to fund fuels reduction work along the Greenway and create a more park-like setting.

In the short-term, Central Point, Jackson County, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife teamed up to remove dangerous debris, reseed burned areas and treat the soil to prevent the reemergence of invasive plant species, city of Central Point officials said.

Firefighters stopped the Almeda fire before it swept through Medford and Central Point, but the Central Point Greenway area was hit by another smaller September 2020 fire that burned trees and charred the land.

There is a good process in place to take care of the Greenway trail itself and the vegetation right along the trail, but not the surrounding area, said Jackson County Roads and Parks Director John Vial.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said spending $457,000 to tackle flammable vegetation regrowing along the Greenway is a good investment because it helps protect the community.

The Greenway's walking, jogging and biking path links Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford and Central Point. It primarily follows beside Bear Creek.

Trees and riparian vegetation shade the creek and provide wildlife habitat, but they're also a source of fuels for fires.

Driven by strong winds after a stretch of unseasonably hot September weather, the Almeda fire burned up the heavily populated Bear Creek, Highway 99 and I-5 corridor.

People are welcome to use the Greenway path, but officials are urging the public to stay on the paved trail and not wander off onto the surrounding land. Crews cut hazardous burned trees close to the trail, but not farther away. People could also fall into hidden caverns in the ground left behind when the fire burned into the root systems of trees.

"Go use it. It's a great facility to get out and walk and enjoy nature and see nature healing, but please remain on the paved path," Lambert said.

He urged everyone to practice fire safety when using the Greenway.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.