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Bear Creek Greenway 2.0

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The Bear Creek Greenway from Ashland to Medford has long been a thoroughfare for people and animals moving easily along the lush thoroughfare that does not respect city boundaries.

On Sept. 8, the Almeda fire rode unusually high winds along the Greenway from Ashland through portions of Talent and Phoenix before halting at the cusp of Medford, enveloping structures in its path.

Massive thickets of nonnative Himalayan blackberries provided fuel for flames to reach treetops, officials say.

Fire officials and Greenway advocates are now in the midst of reshaping parts of the charred Greenway corridor to curb future wildfire advances while still providing streamside protections for Bear Creek and its wild salmon.

It’s a delicate balance, but plans are to create a Greenway 2.0 — an upgrade that will provide natural stream protections for Bear Creek as well as its fish and wildlife, while serving as less of a conduit for future fires.

“That’s exactly how we’re looking at it — as a reset,” says Jason Minica, the forestry, trails and open space supervisor for the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department.

“The fire kind of did us a favor and took out of a lot of blackberries,” Minica says. “Now we can get in here, replant native vegetation and get this back to where it used to be.”

It will be a more calculated reset than when natural and unnatural circumstances have overwhelmed the Greenway to help create the fiery freeway of flames during the Almeda fire.

In a matter of a few hours that afternoon, the Almeda fire ran down the creek and followed shifting winds into streamside neighborhoods, some of which were completely wiped out.

Flames took advantage of massive blackberry patches, some of which were 12 feet or taller. It formed what firefighters call a “ladder,” or a mechanism for flames to climb 100-year-old oaks and other trees to their canopies.

Canopy fires can move quickly, especially amid the horrific winds of the Almeda fire, and allow flames to jump fire lines and even Interstate 5.

In the post-fire reconstruction, plans are to reclaim former blackberry thickets with Oregon grape, alders, willows and dogwoods to help stabilize riparian soils without providing those ladder fuels.

Plans also call for beefing up these areas with more natural firebreaks around areas such as Blue Heron Park in Phoenix, road crossings and orchards.

And just as important as helping bolster them is mapping them, says Capt. Chris Chambers of Ashland Fire & Rescue.

These can act like bottlenecks to funnel future fires into predictable and defensible spaces so flames could be less apt to leapfrog their way downstream into streamside communities, Chambers says.

“It won’t be a perfect firebreak,” Chambers says. “But you build patterns in the landscape that create pinch-points. You map them and you know where to go. We’ve seen this slide show before.”

But these firebreaks can’t be created in a vacuum along places like Bear Creek, which is critical spawning and rearing habitat for Rogue Basin wild steelhead and salmon, including federally threatened wild coho salmon.

Bear Creek’s wild salmon are already threatened by myriad water-quality problems, including turbidity and temperature. Healthy riparian zones can use plants to stabilize banks and reduce erosion, while healthy canopies can block the intense summer sun from creek water.

“A healthy riparian area can have healthy native plants that do not act as ladder fuels,” says Pete Samarin, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who works on salmon habitat issues. “There’s no reason you can’t have a healthy riparian area without ladder fuels.”

This winter, many of the former blackberry patches are black dead zones that need healthy roots to stabilize the soils.

Samarin sees a chance to reclaim berry patches with native plants with both short- and long-term benefits for the creek, its water quality and the salmon that use it as both breeding grounds and a nursery.

“We think it’s an excellent opportunity to change the tree diversity in this riparian zone,” Samarin says. “But there is no perfect scenario.”

The Almeda fire’s dynamics, fueled by bold and unpredictable winds, made the Greenway a wild and somewhat horrific wild card in firefighters’ battles to save neighborhoods.

While fires raged in Ashland, the flames’ almost Sherman-like march toward Medford required crews to make a stand and repel its advances.

That meant diverting some resources from Ashland neighborhoods to the Greenway, Chambers says.

It was a damned-if-you-do choice that might not be necessary with a more fire-wise Greenway.

“Let’s hope we never have to make those decisions again,” Chambers says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jason Minica, forestry trails and open space supervisor with the Ashland Parks Department, walks through a burned section of the Greenway along Bear Creek in Ashland on Thursday.{ }Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune.
Bear Creek Greenway after Almeda Fire. (Mail Tribune)