Restoring ground zero
With a dry winter setting the stage for a long, dry summer and the rising probability of hot and windy autumn weather forming ideal conditions for severe fires in the West, stakeholders count on a unified approach to fire resilience, water quality and ecological restoration in areas where community meets wildland.
The odds of experiencing fire-sparking conditions has increased 40% due to climate change, according to new Oregon State University research. A study led by postdoctoral researcher Linnia Hawkins covered four areas in California and Oregon that encountered catastrophic wind-driven wildfires in recent years.
According to Hawkins, the research demonstrates that “anthropogenic climate change has already increased the likelihood of autumn wind-driven extreme fire weather conditions in the West,” and together with “biomass accumulation and more people living in the wildland-urban interface in fire-prone lands,” overall fire risk is on the rise.
In September 2020, a spate of wind-driven fires destroyed more than 4,000 homes in Oregon, with the Almeda fire and South Obenchain fire in Jackson County causing the most destruction.
When the Almeda fire swept through the 13-acre Ashland Pond property, it “destroyed much of the important streamside habitat, including trees and vegetation, impacting soils, ecocultural resources and drastically changing the visual landscape while altering its ecology,” according to a Feb. 3 Ashland Parks and Recreation staff report.
From its ignition point in Ashland, the blaze traveled along a drainage adjacent to the Ashland wastewater treatment plant, catching teasel and grasses on its way to the Bear Creek Greenway.
“Unlike that day that unleashed destruction, we’re turning things around here today,” said Eugene Wier, restoration project manager with The Freshwater Trust, from the property Thursday. “If this plant community had been restored before that fire broke out, the Almeda fire probably wouldn’t have made it anywhere else out of this place.”
After a year observing natural regeneration in partnership with The Freshwater Trust and clearing dead vegetation, Lomakatsi Restoration Project crews Wednesday began planting a variety of 5,000 native trees, shrubs and pollinator plants in the burn scar between Ashland Creek and Ashland Pond, helping to re-establish native vegetation essential for salmon, wildlife and water quality.
An established stream-shading project paid for by the city of Ashland and implemented by shovel-ready nonprofit partners offsets solar heat on the water and mitigates the temperature impacts of wastewater treatment plant discharge, Wier said.
After the Almeda fire, the water-quality focused project incorporated a restoration element. Previously, overstory trees provided shade, but the understory had been overtaken by invasive weeds, calling for restoration directed at weed control and understory health, Wier said.
“In the areas where we have these pockets of mature trees and you have a lot of ... dense blackberries, then you have this wind-driven event, we’re having to think about riparian management in a really different context because of what we saw in Almeda,” Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey said. “It did clear the slate and it did open things up, but now we have to layer salmon habitat with fire resiliency.”
The Almeda fire devastated the canopy tree, so without active replacement, the riparian area could wait decades before shade covered the creek again — time that a “temperature-challenged” Bear Creek could not afford, Wier said.
“This program was really well poised to help repair the damages that happened after the fire,” Wier said. “It was never the intent of the program, but it just so happens that having it in place at this time provided a great resource to get out and address some of the need here.”
“What we’ve learned over the years from other projects, some of them that saw fire in the Almeda fire down in Talent, is that these restored plant communities are far more resilient than what was here before, which was dominated by weeds,” Wier said. “They don’t carry the fire in the same way the weeds do, and they don’t burn as hot, and fire is actually good for these plant communities — they’re fire-adapted native plants.”
A homeowner within a project area in Talent recalled that the fire was “a 40-foot wall coming out of the trailer park,” but where it met the treated area, it dropped to the ground and spared the house and trees, he said.
“We feel confident that a restored plant community here will be much more resilient, less likely to carry fire in the future and will recover much more quickly on its own from future disturbances, which we expect more of based on climate predictions for this area,” Wier said. “We expect to have more high water events, flash flood events, and we expect to have more long, dry summers with the potential for fire.”
Emphasizing the need for connectivity, Wier said in a “scattershot approach” the benefits of projects aren’t fully realized because spaces in between are vulnerable to fire that can erase the pockets of good work.
“This is really meaningful because this is right at the ignition point where the fire started, but we need to do this work throughout the entire Bear Creek corridor,” Wier said. “And we need to do it soon and connected, so that when we do have a future fire, whether it starts in Central Point or starts in Ashland, it’s not able to use this corridor as a wick to travel up and down through our communities.”
Wier said the goal is to implement unified ecological work throughout the corridor over the next three to five years and link together a native-dominated plant community with a lighter fuel load.
“When this work is completed (and the work we’re implementing this spring on the next private site down), we’ll have over a mile of connected restoration here in this vicinity, basically from Oak Street down,” Wier said.
On Friday, Ashland Parks and Recreation was slated to manage a pile burn around Ashland Pond near Bear Creek and another along the east hillside of Lithia Park.
In the OSU study, modeling found that human influences on climate reduced the frequency of strong offshore winds in the fall over the two-year study period, but hotter temperatures and dried-out fuels raised the overall risk of extreme fire weather.
“Over the last handful of years, California and western Oregon have experienced their largest and most destructive wildfires ever recorded,” Hawkins said. “The rapid and extensive growth of many of the fires was driven by strong, dry, offshore, downslope autumn winds blowing across fuels that had become very parched over the summer and stayed that way into fall.”
Heat, strong winds and arid fuels fed the September 2020 blaze that took down entire neighborhoods, businesses and manufactured home parks.
“Numerous management issues function synergistically to create an increased risk of fire throughout the riparian corridor,” according to the Bear Creek Fire Management Plan developed by Lomakatsi restoration ecologist Rob Strahan for the city of Medford, published November 2021.
The plan was intended to “provide the city with goals and implementation strategies to reduce wildfire risk, while maintaining vegetative cover for the benefit of anadromous fish through this area knowing that there may be additional complexities associated with property ownership and homelessness,” according to the plan.
Recommendations in the fire management plan to mitigate wildfire risk address invasive plant control, existing native vegetation enhancement and new planting, and ecological thinning and fuels-reduction treatments in select zones.
Wier said he expects more communities to adopt similar forward-thinking plans in response to recent events and the evolving nature of the work. Partners coordinated through the Bear Creek Restoration Initiative have come together around the need for a coordinated restoration approach, with decades of investment in various projects behind them, Wier said.
“We would like to become more holistic in the way we do restoration,” Wier said. “So that when we’re going into the forest to thin a hillside, we’re also working in the riparian corridor at the same time using similar sorts of practices, so that we’re holistically restoring these watersheds and not just doing a little piece here and a little piece there.”
Lomakatsi Riparian Restoration Manager Nicole Del Pizzo said thinning and improving fire resilience in the watershed protects Bear Creek tributaries downstream.
“When the fire comes through and wipes out all those trees that are lining those tributaries, then you’re going to have soil erosion going into the water and it’s going to reduce the water quality,” she said. “Just a regular approach to riparian restoration supports a low-fire type of scenario anyway; now we’re fusing our riparian restoration with a new perspective on fire.”
At the Ashland Pond property this week, Lomakatsi crews planted a variety of shrubs and shade-bearing trees native to the Rogue Valley — going light on planted cottonwood to encourage diversity amid natural post-fire regeneration from the local cottonwood seed bank, Del Pizzo said. Pacific ninebark, snowberry, oceanspray, wild rose, Douglas spiraea, red osier dogwood, and willows staking the streambank serve as “native analogs” to blackberry.
“Right now even though we’re doing recovery, that whole circle of prevention, intervention, preparedness, recovery — it keeps going around and around again,” Lomakatsi Tribal Partnerships Director Belinda Brown said. “We know that fires are coming. Ashland dodged a bullet.”
Crews intend to install a drip irrigation system and keep up blackberry maintenance to prevent the invasive species from taking over while native plantings establish themselves over about three years, and continue maintenance years into the future, Del Pizzo said.