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Fire resiliency and streamside restoration

The recent Almeda fire was a destructive, wind-driven fire event that devastated the Bear Creek corridor from Ashland to South Medford. As a 20-year resident of the valley, it’s painful to observe the damage to the place I call home. I’m far from alone in this pain.

All of us in Southern Oregon recognize that this event will mean years of rebuilding work. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate our resilience as a community. Yet working as a restoration project manager with The Freshwater Trust, this event has also highlighted for me the importance of resilient landscapes.

Unlike most wildfires that burn the hillsides and ridges of the Siskiyou mountains, this fire followed a riparian, or streamside, area. Partly, it was the direction of the wind and the location of the fire’s origin that put the Bear Creek Greenway in the fire’s path, but the vegetation conditions also acted like a wick, carrying the fire farther, faster, and making it hotter. While wildfires have burned the Rogue Valley in the past, what has changed is that native streamside vegetation has given way in the face of agriculture and increasing population to simplified, and often weedy, landscapes. Invasive weeds like Armenian blackberry choke the greenway corridor. Although they appear green, they are highly flammable as evidenced by this event.

The fire followed the Armenian blackberry along the Greenway and field edges and canals, finding its way all the way to the back of my home along Highway 99 between Phoenix and Talent. And where this invasive blackberry grew thick, the fire burned hot. Armenian blackberry is rated as “explosively flammable” by California weed authorities.

The Freshwater Trust works to improve water quality and native habitat by removing invasive species and planting native plants along the streamside in the Rogue Valley to help secure its long-term resilience. Interestingly, when I visited some of our current and past riparian restoration projects within the burn area, the fire had burned much cooler and had not damaged the crowns of the overstory trees to the degree seen in non-restored sites. One of our riparian projects in Talent provides a great example: 100% of the project area had fire, yet only a small portion of the project (less than 10%) burned hot enough to damage the tree crowns. The overstory trees that did burn are now dropping leaves that will help prevent soil erosion. The ash will fertilize the soil and be absorbed by the surviving tree roots, and the fire may be beneficial to the native plant community at this site.

The adaptations that make native plants resilient to floods in riparian areas also make many of them resilient to fires. Most of the hardwood trees and shrubs will regenerate, and some are already putting out new leaves only weeks after they were burned. This event has made it clear: Riparian restoration plays a powerful role in fire resiliency.

We invite you to join us for a virtual discussion from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, about some of our work in Bear Creek and the greater Rogue Valley. We will explore the topic of how restoration can not only improve water quality and fish population health, but can also play a role in fire and climate resiliency in our communities. The event will include a Q&A with myself and other restoration project managers Katelyn Detweiler and Hilary Cosentino. It is free and open to the public, but registration via Eventbrite is required to receive instructions on how to access the webinar. For more information, see thefreshwatertrust.org/get-involved/events/

We hope to see you there.

Eugene Wier is restoration project manager of The Freshwater Trust.