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Field trip to the fire scar

It takes a focused eye to recognize the scars of deadly fire while walking along the Bear Creek Greenway north of Pine Street in Central Point.

Karelia Ver Eecke can spot the evidence, however. The education and outreach coordinator for the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District knows what the Peninger fire did to 97 acres of public and private property that burned here in July 2018. Those details, and what’s happened to the land since, are what Ver Eecke has been teaching local elementary school students on field trips the past two autumns since the blaze.

“It’s been amazing to see the community momentum around it and the interest in it,” she said.

Thursday morning, it was Jenelle Miracle’s third-grade class, transported by bus from Patrick Elementary School. Split into groups of about six, the 26 students rotated through four stations manned by fire, law enforcement and conservation officials, ready to teach about fire ecology, emergency response and the history of the environment that both students and professionals call home.

“Fire is big and scary, but it’s going to exist, and it’s always going to exist,” Ver Eecke said. “So how can we better educate people to understand why this fire happened, how it behaved, why it behaved the way it did and then ways that we’re working to hopefully make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

In her presentations, moving along the Greenway, Ver Eecke pulled examples directly from the landscape around her: tree branches and stems from Himalayan blackberry plants, passed carefully around the group of students. She explained to her charges how native plants, such as black cottonwoods, grow, burn and recover differently from non-native, invasive species such as the blackberry plants.

Using drone photos, Ver Eecke showed the students how the landscape looked a few months after burning, and how it looks this fall.

The photos show how native species recovered nicely on the west side of the creek in particular. Much of the foliage that was black or orange in the first photo was green by the following year.

A few dozen yards away, Herb Johnson and his group of students were bent over examining a “tree cookie” that documents the life of the plant from which it was taken.

Johnson, a forest officer with Oregon Department of Forestry, pointed to show the students where the tree had weathered fire, and how as it aged its growth began to slow.

“But, hey, when I’m 110, I might slow down, too,” he said.

Johnson said the workshops offer an opportunity to expand their understanding at an early age of the ecological benefits of wildfire, as well as the factors that contribute to massive forest fires that loom as an ominous possibility each summer.

This year, Johnson tailored his message for a third-grade level, describing it as “trying to continue the conversation into future generations that fire is something that we have to live with and adapt to, rather than try to continue down this path of fire’s evil and we need to just put it out all the time.”

The Peninger fire, a human-caused blaze that began near the Greenway in the afternoon of July 17, 2018, burned a couple of outbuildings, singed a few houses, closed roads, caused evacuations as strong winds carried embers east, and it killed a homeless man, Robert Lee Walker, who had been living by the Greenway.

Now, Ver Eecke, Johnson and the other presenters use the site as an outdoor classroom and workspace. Earlier this month, Noah Stillwell, a St. Mary’s School student, worked on a restoration there as part of his Eagle Scout project, under Ver Eecke’s supervision.

Miracle said she likes any opportunity for her students to leave the routine of the classroom and learn outside.

“Not only do they get to connect with each other, with nature, but (also) with our community,” she said. “I can tell them this in a classroom, but it’s more meaningful to hear from other people and to be actually at a fire site.”

Student Kaylee Snowden said that learning the story of the Peninger fire helped her realize a greater sense of caution.

“If you haven’t learned about it, it might not sound so dangerous, but once you hear about it and what it can do, it sounds more dangerous,” she said. “(It) lets you know that you need to stay away from and prevent fires.”

What did Snowden think she most wanted to tell her family about?

“Everything,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Central Point Detective Josh Abbott talks about fire risks to 3rd grade students from Patrick Elementary in Gold Hill at the Peninger fire site along the Bear Creek in Central Point Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCentral Point Detective Josh Abbott talks about fire risks to 3rd grade students from Patrick Elementary in Gold Hill at the Peninger fire site along the Bear Creek in Central Point Thursday morning.