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Preventing fires means replacing blackberries

Anyone who has gardened or maintained a yard in Southern Oregon is familiar with the ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry.

If you don’t have any growing on your property, just wait. The invasive vines will appear sooner or later, a gift from the local birds who feast on the berries and then deposit the seeds in their droppings.

If you don’t immediately pull them up by the roots, they can quickly establish themselves as a semi-permanent fixture of your landscaping. In less cultivated places they take over completely, crowding out native species and creating huge tangles of thorny vines.

That’s the case along the Bear Creek Greenway, where blackberry vines played a major role in helping the devastating Almeda fire roar north along the creek on Labor Day, consuming everything in its path.

Blackberries are highly flammable, and their tendency to form tall brambles and climb into nearby trees makes them ideal “ladder fuels” that carry flames from the ground into the tree canopy, where wildfires fanned by high winds can race quickly, jumping to structures and even leaping Interstate 5, which happened during the Almeda fire.

Local fire officials together with parks specialists and others are planning to replace the burned-over blackberries with native species that will prevent erosion and shade the creek, keeping water temperatures lower for native fish, without becoming ladder fuels themselves. Potential replacements include Oregon grape, alders, willows and dogwoods.

That’s a tall order, and it won’t be cheap. Because the blackberry vines grow in the riparian zone along Bear Creek, environmental rules preclude the use of herbicides to kill them. Cutting them down won’t keep them from coming back unless they are dug up, roots and all, which takes a great deal of time and effort.

Realistically, blackberry eradication will become a perennial project, because the tenacious vines tend to come back despite heroic efforts to remove them. That’s a job that could be ideal for community groups willing to volunteer some physical labor.

Oregon lawmakers are planning to address fire recovery efforts here and elsewhere in the state during the 2021 legislative session. Those efforts should include significant state funding for landscape restoration. A “reset” on the Greenway will go a long way toward preventing a recurrence of the devastating Labor Day fires.

As local fire officials point out in today’s paper, there is no perfect solution, but building in natural fire breaks and mapping those will give fire crews a head start on stopping any future fires.