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Rain could flush toxins into Bear Creek

Jackson County is in a race against time to reseed and stabilize land along the Bear Creek Greenway before fall rains come and wash toxic material from the Almeda fire into the creek.

With the towns of Talent and Phoenix reeling from the fire, the county may have to shoulder the estimated $500,000 cost of the emergency treatment, said County Administrator Danny Jordan.

“When it comes down to it, somebody has to act,” Jordan said.

Hundreds of acres burned along nine miles of the paved path that stretches through multiple jurisdictions from Ashland to Central Point, county officials said.

The 3,200-acre Almeda fire burned from north Ashland to the southern outskirts of Medford. Wind drove the fire along a corridor that contains the Greenway, Bear Creek, Highway 99 and Interstate 5.

A variety of housing developments, including manufactured home parks, border Bear Creek. Burned homes are now hazardous waste sites with asbestos, mercury, lead, propane tanks and other debris.

Jordan said the county will seek reimbursement for the emergency erosion control work, but won’t wait to see if it can get outside funding from another payer like the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“This is not something that can wait on bureaucracy,” he said.

The county hopes to have the Ashland-based helicopter company Brim Aviation flying over the Greenway next week, dropping seeds on burned areas, said Jackson County Parks Program Manager Steve Lambert.

Crews will focus additional treatment on highly vulnerable areas such as steep slopes and inlets that feed into Bear Creek, he said.

The National Weather Service predicts no rain at least through Thursday for the Medford area.

Bartlett Tree Service arborists have already been at work cutting down hundreds of hazard trees that could fall on people using the walking, jogging and biking path. The county is gradually reopening sections of the Greenway that had to be closed due to hazard trees, damaged bridges and other dangers.

Anyone using open sections should stick to the path and stay out of burned areas, officials said.

Before the Almeda fire, crews cut fire breaks along the Greenway this year, but the cleared areas were no match for flames and embers pushed by 40 mph winds, said John Vial, head of the county’s roads and parks department plus the leader of the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

After the initial emergency effort to stabilize Greenway soil, the area will need more restoration, including the planting of native plants, Vial said.

Although it brought unprecedented destruction to Jackson County, the Almeda fire cleared many areas of flammable vegetation along the Greenway.

That creates a good opportunity to manage the area in the future to reduce fire danger, Vial said.

The Almeda fire destroyed 2,490 residential structures, 164 commercial buildings and four government structures, according to the latest count. Most of the damage occurred in and around Phoenix and Talent.

Rogue Valley Sewer Services is installing inlet protections in the fire zone on publicly owned storm drains to prevent ash and debris from entering the creek.

Storm drain systems empty into local creeks, not sewage treatment plants.

Rogue Valley Sewer Services is also working with private property owners to get protections installed for commercial lots and mobile home parks, and is working with a variety of stakeholders to get burned areas in riparian zones reseeded before the rainy season.

Effective Sept. 8, the day the Almeda fire started, Rogue Valley Sewer Services suspended sewer service billing for properties that burned and are uninhabitable.

It’s capping sewer pipes at the property line for burned sites so debris and animals don’t enter the sewer system and cause blockages.

Rogue Valley Sewer Service says it will work with people to bring sewer services to temporary emergency housing sites and will waive any plan review and inspection fees for those projects.

The agency will also work with those who want a recreational vehicle dump installed on their property.

RVs have holding tanks for waste that is emptied into RV dumps, which are then emptied into sewer or septic systems.

Jackson County has long had a shortage of rental houses and apartments, so local officials are working to identify parcels of land for trailers that can provide temporary housing for some displaced residents during the cleanup and rebuilding process.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Jackson County is looking for ways to stop rain from washing toxic ash and soils from the Almeda fire into Bear Creek. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Workers are felling hazardous trees along the Bear Creek Greenway that could fall on path users. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch