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Fuels reduction pays off when fire strikes

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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Steve Lambert shows where crews cut a fire line that helped contained a recent fire along the Bear Creek Greenway outside Central Point.
Firefighters keep fire along Greenway under 10 acres

Efforts to reduce flammable fuels and clear fire breaks along the Bear Creek Greenway paid off when lightning sparked a fire along the popular biking and walking path.

The June 22 fire smoldered undetected overnight, then flared up the next day near the northern end of the Greenway by Dean Creek Road outside Central Point.

Jackson County workers, the Oregon Department of Forestry and others had been tackling fuels in the area before the fire.

"Luckily, some of the work that we've been doing with our fire officials, specifically ODF, out in this neck of the woods in regards to cutting in fire breaks really helped Fire District 3 keep that fire at that 5-6 acre range ― rather than something much larger," Jackson County Parks Program Manager Steve Lambert said as he stood in ash among burned trees.

Although the fire was too small to gain much attention and an official name, it’s been dubbed the Dean Creek fire due to its proximity to Dean Creek Road.

In September 2020, the Almeda fire burned along the Interstate 5, Highway 99 and the Bear Creek Greenway corridor, destroying thousands of homes and businesses.

Amid the destruction, the fire burned off towering thickets of invasive blackberry brambles, along with poison hemlock and other unwanted plants.

Crews from a broad section of government agencies and organizations have been cutting back vegetation and spraying herbicide to keep invasive plants at bay along the Greenway. They’re also tackling overgrown areas that didn’t burn.

On the north end of the Greenway, that all-hands-on-deck approach meant Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputies were driving heavy equipment to mow down blackberries and hemlock in the area that was later hit by the Dean Creek fire, Lambert said.

Crews have been cutting fire breaks in strategic areas along the Greenway, including the Dean Creek fire area. The fire breaks look like dirt roads snaking across the land.

“What they do is they bring in a bulldozer and scrape away the vegetation to what they call bare mineral. So basically you have nothing but dirt in an 8-9-foot-wide path. That prevents the fire from creeping along the ground and moving farther into another area,” Lambert said. “It also gives fire officials really easy access through a nice cleared area where they can drive engines in, lay hose and specifically target the fire.”

While some parts of the Greenway are rural, other parts of the paved path run next to homes and businesses. The path stretches from Ashland past Central Point.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Jackson County Parks Program Manager Steve Lambert walks on the Bear Creek Greenway bike path between homes and the creek near Phoenix.

For the past few years, the Jackson County Roads and Parks Department has consulted with Medford Fire-Rescue, Jackson County Fire District No. 3 and ODF to help identify high-priority areas for fuels reduction, Lambert said.

In one typical area along the Greenway, blackberry thickets towered 12 feet tall along Bear Creek — dangerously close to I-5 and rows of homes.

One cigarette carelessly tossed from a car driving by on I-5 could have sparked an inferno.

Crews cut the thickets down, creating a more open landscape along the Greenway and Bear Creek.

“Now with the work that's been done there's considerably less chance of a fire spreading from the freeway into here," Lambert said during a visit to a section of the Greenway near Phoenix.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Steve Lambert walks between Bear Creek and the Greenway where blackberry bushes have been cut near I-5 and the town of Phoenix.

With hot temperatures and fire season restrictions in effect, crews have paused their efforts to fight back the vegetation, except for spraying herbicide to control regrowth, he said.

Lambert said more work will resume in the fall, including grading to smooth out the terrain in certain areas. That will make it easier for workers to mow and maintain those areas in the future.

Meanwhile, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners recently approved an order prohibiting the use of areas off the paved trail on land under county jurisdiction. The sheriff’s office and parks department have been enforcing the order.

People can use the path and 10-foot-wide areas on either side, but wandering any farther could result in a $250 fine.

The goal is to reduce the risk of human-caused fires along the Greenway.

In the aftermath of the Almeda fire, areas away from the trail also pose dangers from hazardous charred trees and burned stump and root holes.

Crews previously cut down hazardous trees close to the Greenway path that could have fallen on users.

The county has posted signs warning people to stay on the path.

Medford City Council has banned all forms of camping along the Greenway during fire season.

The Greenway passes through several cities and across county, private and Oregon Department of Transportation land.

Jackson County is in the midst of a multi-year drought, with fire officials saying fire season conditions are already a month ahead of schedule due to scant spring rain, wind and hot weather.

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