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Wildfire set stage for new beginning

A fast-moving fire that burned 123 acres and threatened Central Point had an upside.

The 2018 Peninger fire wiped out invasive blackberries along Bear Creek — setting the stage for a restoration project this weekend.

Noah Stillwell, 17, led efforts to plant trees and bushes Sunday morning that will provide habitat for wildlife and benefit fish by cooling Bear Creek. Dozens of kids and adults planted Ponderosa pine, big leaf maple, dogwood, alder and other species, leaving behind flags fluttering in the breeze to mark the new starts.

“It was just amazing to see how many people in the community came out to help do these trees,” Stillwell said. “We started about 9 o’clock and we got done about 11:15. So just over two hours of work and we planted 410 trees. It was amazing.”

Although the planting went quickly on Sunday, the project took plenty of advance planning.

Stillwell, a St. Mary’s School student, is working to restore the area as part of his Eagle Scout project.

“This is like the equivalent of a college senior project in the Boy Scout world,” said Karelia Ver Eecke, education and outreach coordinator for the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District.

Stillwell coordinated the project with the district, the Middle Rogue Steelheaders group and Lomakatsi Restoration Project, a nonprofit ecological restoration organization. He tapped Boy Scouts, school students and others to help on planting day.

“So it’s a really big pat on his back and a really big lift for us in the restoration world to not have to pay a crew to come out here and plant this,” Ver Eecke said.

She said the Peninger fire did about $10,000 worth of work by destroying invasive blackberry bushes — plants that are notoriously hard to eradicate. Having volunteers replant the area makes the restoration more affordable.

As another aspect of the project, Stillwell made the rounds of local businesses, getting donations of food, gloves, buckets and other supplies for volunteers from Sherm’s Food 4 Less, Ray’s Food Place, Starbuck’s, Dazey’s Hubbard’s hardware store and Home Depot.

“All the people in the community were really willing to help me succeed here, which is great,” Stillwell said.

The Peninger fire raced through the area in July 2018, forcing residents to evacuate in a two-mile radius. Only the quick actions of firefighters saved countless homes and buildings from going up in flames. The body of a homeless man was later found in the burned area by a crew surveying damage in a helicopter.

Investigators believe the fire was human-caused and started near a transient camp.

Restoration started soon after in October 2018 to minimize erosion, control invasive weeds and use the area as a public learning opportunity.

Ver Eecke said people will be back in the area this December to keep improving the Bear Creek corridor.

“Watch for this area to continue to improve. We’re keeping a good hold on the blackberries and weeds and just continuing that community momentum behind it,” she said.

As for other young people who want to tackle big community projects, Stillwell offered a few tips.

“My advice would be start it so you have plenty of time and make sure that you communicate. Because as long as you communicate with the people that you’re working with, everything’s going to go great,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Troop 33 members Pratheeka Weerakoon, 13, (left), Annabelle Mayerle, 13, Sara Davis, 14, and Dalia Ibarra help plant trees and shrubs along Bear Creek Sunday morning in Central Point. Photo by Denise Baratta