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Blackberry removal a must for fire prevention

Medford leaders must find a way — or several ways — to pay for blackberry removal along the Bear Creek Greenway. That effort is a key factor in preventing future wildfires like the Almeda fire that swept down the creek just over a year ago, destroying 2,500 homes.

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The invasive, flammable Himalayan blackberry grows wild anywhere it takes root, spread by bird droppings. The thorny vines climb into trees, providing a ladder fuel for flames to reach the tree canopy and spread even faster.

Along with juniper, poison hemlock and other species, blackberries represent a fire risk for nearby structures. Eradicating them and replacing them with more fire-resistant native species should be a high priority for local government agencies seeking to make the Bear Creek corridor safer and more attractive.

The work is costly and labor-intensive. Environmental regulations prevent the use of toxic herbicides on stream banks, requiring crews to physically dig up and remove blackberries.

Medford officials estimate the cost just in the city at more than $600,000 a year — $6 million over 10 years. Blackberry removal alone would cost the Parks Department $410,000 a year, Public Works up to $200,000, and Code Enforcement, responsible for weed removal on private property, would need to increase its budget by more than $14,000.

Officials are hopeful they can secure a $3.5 million grant to help pay for the work, but that’s not guaranteed. Another idea is a taxing district to fund greenway weed abatement, which would require voter approval.

Taxes are never popular, but if such a district were broad enough to spread the cost through the community, it could make it more attractive to residents. All residents have an interest in reducing fire risk, especially after seeing the widespread destruction of the Almeda fire.

Blackberry thickets along the greenway also are a magnet for homeless camps, which are responsible for starting multiple fires every year. Removing that hazard would go a long way toward restoring the greenway as a family-friendly centerpiece of the city.

The value of removing blackberries was dramatically demonstrated in June, when firefighters credited weed removal work with helping them quickly douse a fire near Central Point.

Then city’s efforts are still in the planning stages, but there is no time to waste. Any and every possible funding source should be pursued to make the Bear Creek corridor more resistant to fire and more welcoming to visitors.