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Re-greening the Greenway

TALENT — Leland Miller pedals his mountain bike down the Bear Creek Greenway like he has regularly for the past 30 years, but the scenery now appears more like a scene from post-war Europe than the lush riparian zone he knows.

Charred trees dot the Greenway, which in places is devoid of ground vegetation, all burned away by the devastating Almeda fire that has forever altered this community.

“It looks like a World War I battlefield,” Miller says.

The Greenway is starting to heal now, but the asphalt path that has carried Miller and other bikers, hikers and runners for well over three decades might never be the same in our lifetimes.

The last stretch of the Greenway to reopen since the fire — the heavily charred patch between North Ashland and Talent’s Lynn Newbry Park — opened last week, and thousands of visitors can start coming back to an area that will always remind them of the losses of their neighbors.

The Sept. 8 fire swept up the Greenway en route to destroying 2,482 residences from Ashland to the Medford border, with the Phoenix and Talent bearing the brunt of it.

Many of these lost communities abut the Greenway, which snakes down the length of Bear Creek through five cities.

The trek from Blue Heron Park in Phoenix to Talent offers an up-close and very personal vision of the devastation urban wildfires can do to communities and adjacent wildlands.

Heading south, the path streaks through some of the 19 mobile home communities destroyed by Almeda fire. Where the flames jumped the Greenway, the creek’s normally lush riparian zone has all but vanished, with remnants of 100-plus-year-old oaks and cottonwoods standing like a charred Stonehenge around the gurgling creek.

While the Greenway is now open to recreation, managers are stressing a golden rule for public safety.

“There are a lot of hazards in the burned areas, so stay on the path, please,” says Steve Lambert, Jackson County parks manager.

The effort to reclaim the Greenway has been extensive and expensive.

The first job was to rid the Greenway of hazard trees that had or could fall onto the path.

Crews hired by the county came in and spent more than six weeks dropping, bucking and stacking hazard trees, often as many as 50 a day, Lambert says.

“We had the arborists use their judgment and mark and remove every tree considered a hazard to trail users,” Lambert says. “That’s an immediate safety need.”

Hundreds of logs have been stacked along the trail, and the county plans to work with the Oregon Department of Transportation to remove them over time, Lambert says.

On the bright side, the Greenway’s asphalt came out virtually unscathed, as did the concrete and steel bridges.

But much of the land around it is in need of short- and long-term rehabilitation.

The county and others involved in the reclamation effort embarked on a three-pronged approach to rehabbing the burned areas.

First, crews looked at priority and environmentally sensitive sites where a federal Environmental Protection Agency crew was called in to stabilize ground and curb runoff of sediment and other fire detritus into Bear Creek, which is a sensitive wild salmon and steelhead stream.

The Ashland-based Lomakatsi Restoration Project also was hired to set up infrastructure to further reduce erosion, Lambert says.

One major aspect for soil stabilization is the massive planting of grass seed, first by air via a helicopter and then on the ground by volunteer groups like the Phoenix High School cross-country team, which trains on this stretch of the Greenway almost daily.

Volunteers also placed dozens of bales of hay strewn around the charred and exposed soils to provide more protection against pounding winter rains, Lambert says.

So far, the effort has cost about $250,000, which was covered short-term by the Bear Creek Greenway county fund, much of it earmarked for other projects, Lambert says. The county expects FEMA to reimburse it for at least three-fourths of that outlay, Lambert says.

This winter, the county will begin a public discussion of long-term Greenway rehabilitation work, with hopes of funding from sources such as the Freshwater Trust and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

But the quick response now has the Greenway open for riders, hikers, walkers ... and gawkers.

The net result is a new Greenway that offers glimpses into the community losses and the start of a resurrection of nature along the valley’s signature beltway.

It’s a view Miller says he’ll follow on his regular forays down the Greenway in weeks, and years, to come.

“It will never be the same in my lifetime,” says Miller, 59. “Not your lifetime. Maybe not the lifetimes of anyone on here this weekend. But it’s coming back. You can see some green in there already.”

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

Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschLarge portions of the Bear Creek Greenway were burned during the Almeda fire.