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Learning at the scene of destruction

CENTRAL POINT — Two Rogue Valley agencies are collaborating to install five interpretive signs along the Bear Creek Greenway where the 2018 Peninger fire burned.

The signs, designed by Ashland-based Karin Onkka Enterprises, will detail information on a variety of topics, including fire safety, ecology, native and non-native plants, pollinators, riparian habitat and the coho salmon life cycle. Project officials from the Rogue Valley Council of Governments and the Jackson Soil & Water Conservation District hope to begin installation on the $4,000 undertaking in March, project manager Craig Tuss said.

“It’ll give people a pretty broad perspective on how a natural area kind of recovers from a fire,” Tuss said. “And then, also, the attributes and characteristics of the area that we want to promote.”

The bilingual signs, 40 inches wide by 24 inches tall, will be installed along the Greenway on the west side of Bear Creek, just downstream from the Pine Street bridge, Tuss said. The three signs covering plants and habitat will likely be the first to be installed, followed by the ones covering fire safety and ecology.

“It really speaks to the fact that we live in a community that has a lot of wildland and urban interface, which means that the risk for fire is greater,” Jackson Soil & Water Conservation District education and outreach coordinator Karelia Ver Eecke said of the signs.

Other agencies that have collaborated on the effort include Oregon Department of Forestry, Jackson County Fire District No. 3, Jackson County Parks, the Expo and the city of Central Point, Ver Eecke said.

The 97-acre Peninger fire ignited in July 2018. The 3-alarm blaze, which was later determined to be human-caused, forced a number of evacuations, starting on the west side of Bear Creek and surging through an area of public and private property. The flames came within a stone’s throw of multiple facilities and businesses, including the Expo, Costco and the Medford airport. One man died in the blaze, which also destroyed multiple outbuildings and damaged several homes.

After the fire, state, county and city agencies came together to collaborate on recovery efforts, beginning in the fall of 2018 with erosion control work. Ver Eecke led school trips at the site during the fall of 2018 and 2019, teaching students about fire ecology, fire safety, and native and invasive plants.

“We saw about 500 kiddos out on the site,” Ver Eecke said. “That was just a great hands-on, local, place-based fire ecology lesson and public safety lesson that the kids wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

“The interpretive sign project ... is kind of an outgrowth of that,” Tuss said.

Tuss added that Northern California’s Carr fire, which ignited less than a week after the Peninger fire and burned 229,651 acres, also played into the decision.

“That was a lot worse than our situation up here, but it’s very similar in the fact that it was along a major transportation corridor,” Tuss said. “I think it was kind of a wake-up call in a couple of ways that it got people’s attention.”

The summer of 2018 saw more than 140 lightning-sparked wildfires across Southern Oregon, resulting in hundreds of thousands of acres lost, while a pall of gray smoke fouled the air for months.

Officials hope the new project will help offer education on what’s being done to mitigate future incidents and help the public connect with natural areas.

“So that they feel more personal responsibility and accountability of themselves to not only get out there and enjoy it, but also get involved with organizations and missions that are working to actively restore these places,” Ver Eecke said.

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

courtesy photoFive interpretive signs, including this one, will be installed along the Bear Creek Greenway near the area where the Peninger fire burned in 2018.
Mail Tribune file photo of the 2018 Peninger fire burning along Biddle Road in Central Point.