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Fire cleanup uncovers options for Central Point

Three months after the devastating September fires that ravaged huge parts of Phoenix and Talent and burned some areas along the Bear Creek Greenway in Central Point, Central Point Public Works Director Matt Samitore spent an afternoon surveying the charred remains of what was once an overgrown swath of the greenway adjacent to his own city.

Looking at it from an optimistic viewpoint, Samitore said the fire damage had provided an unusual opportunity to create something better.

The city has battled crime and safety issues for decades along the Greenway, and the summer fires provided a call to action for the city in managing the sprawling natural area riddled with blackberry bushes, homeless camps and piles of debris.

“Here’s where ground zero was for the fires here,” he said while driving along the path on the northerly end of the Greenway, surveying a blackened area as crews worked on cleanup efforts nearby.

“Trees along the Greenway became like roman candles. It was just unbelievable. The weather was 100 degrees. It went from the city limits of Medford to the overpass in 22 minutes ... Our police and public works crews worked around the clock, putting out spot fires the remainder of that week,” he said.

“Without all those combined forces, we would have had another Phoenix-Talent situation. Thankfully, we had a whole community who jumped in and started to do things here, to change the outcome.”

After about 70-plus acres burned in what felt like the blink of an eye, the city was prompt in starting what cleanup it could, while staying within restrictions so investigations and other processes could take place.

Some 200 small trees were removed immediately, with larger trees left for habitat and soil retention.

“We’ve cut back everything we can from here to the 50-foot riparian corridor, and what we’re going to do is apply for a permit through (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) to remove the rest of the blackberries so we can actually see what we have,” he said.

“This will be our new standard moving forward, a new minimum. It’s got to be cut back so it can be easily maintained.”

Samitore said cleanup and redesign efforts would be complex due to the overlap of jurisdictions for the nearby county roads and state freeway and riparian corridor. But it’s important.

Even prior to 2020, the city had been plagued with safety issues and fire danger along the Greenway. The human-caused Peninger fire in 2018 burned about 97 acres and horrified residents as it crossed Pine Street, prompting evacuations from Costco and Pilot. An air strike was required to get flames out before neighborhoods were impacted.

“One thing that’s interesting ... is that we don’t own any of this. It’s actually owned by ODOT, the city of Medford and Jackson County,” he said.

“Part of the process will involve working to annex most of it into the city, so we’re starting those conversations.”

The city has conducted some basic cleanup, Samitore said, and the newly cleared pathway is already seeing increased use. Crews even uncovered an old equestrian trail system from decades ago.

An unnamed pond is visible for the first time in years, he said, and families are walking and biking through the scorched area.

“It’s an interesting little space. We pulled quite a few shopping carts out. We knew it was in here, but you could just never see it before,” he said.

“The idea is to make it a river walk or stream walk. We are definitely working to find the silver lining, and it’s been nice to see families coming back out.”

Samitore said community input will be an important part of the process once design work begins. The area could include a range of recreational uses.

“For right now, we can at least brush hog it until we come up with a plan. We’re not going to allow these blackberries to come back in. We just can’t,” he said.

“Hopefully our City Council and the county and other jurisdictions will be on board with coming up with a plan that will work for everybody.”

Samitore said the new open space would essentially triple the city’s usable park space.

“We suddenly have all this new open space, so we’re blessed from the perspective that we did not get anything in Central Point destroyed,” he said.

“It came awfully close to being really, really bad. And now we have this opportunity.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Public works director Matt Samitore talks about landscaping possibilities around a natural spring and throughout the Bear Creek Greenway area between Central Point and Medford burned in the fires last month.