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New growth appears in the area that the Deer Ridge fire burned a year ago Tuesday on the flanks of Roxy Ann Peak in Medford. - Julia Moore

Medford fire area shows signs of life

Wildflowers were the last thing on Vicki Korpa's mind after a fire one year ago scorched 633 acres below Roxy Ann.

"For a long time, it just hurt my heart to see that devastation," she said.

Then, this spring, Korpa and other neighbors got a surprise.

"The wildflowers came up, but everything else was dead," she said. "The grasses that came up after the fire were the tallest I've ever seen. They were taller than I am."

After the Deer Ridge fire swept over the flanks of Roxy Ann on Sept. 21, 2009, there has been considerable effort to rehabilitate the bleak hillsides. As a result, and with a little help from Mother Nature, meadows turned green this spring and wildflowers lit up the scorched landscape.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife awarded a $6,283 grant to pay for forage and grass seed to replant 287 acres of private lands burned in the Deer Ridge fire and the Siskiyou wildfire in Ashland that started the same day.

Meanwhile, residents have stepped up efforts to make sure there is a defensible space around their homes, including mowing the grass that grew so tall this spring.

"We're a lot more aware of fires and how bad they could be," said 57-year-old Mike Korpa, Vicki's husband. "We're more vigilant. We have definitely tried to take care of our property and create a better defensible space."

Investigators narrowed the point of origin down to a six-foot area off Deer Ridge Drive, but haven't determined who started the blaze.

Medford Fire Marshal Greg Kleinberg said the fire was human caused, but the exact ignition source was unknown.

The low estimate on the cost to battle the fire is $1.3 million. No structures were lost.

"Under different conditions, if the winds were blowing in a different direction, it could have been a much bigger challenge," Kleinberg said.

Just a few weeks before the Deer Ridge fire, the Korpas had met with fire officials to make the area around their house more fire-resistant. They pulled out shrubbery that had a high oil content and made other improvements.

In some ways, the fire has helped the Korpas by burning off underbrush near their house, but leaving most of the trees intact.

Other neighbors have cut down burned stumps and have begun planting new trees.

Laura Jane Littrell, the Korpas' neighbor, said it is still an eerie sight to see her beloved east Medford hillsides of pine and madrone scorched into a wasteland.

"Obviously, the old growth is gone, and the skeletons are still there," said the 54-year-old resident.

However, on hillsides where large groves of trees were destroyed, new shoots have sprouted around the stumps of madrones.

Homeowners have watched as two recent fires — one on Oak Knoll in Ashland, the other on Blackwell Hill outside Central Point — destroyed homes.

"My heart sure goes out to these other folks who faced what we faced last year," Littrell said.

Littrell still sees turkey, deer and bobcats roaming the burned hills just below Roxy Ann Peak in east Medford.

Even though life is returning to normal for some residents, neighbors are always reminded that they live in an area that could change in an instant.

A grass fire just a few blocks from the Deer Ridge fire burned about an acre on July 28.

Investigators determined a bird that got fried in electrical wires caused the blaze, which gave residents a start.

"Every time there's a fire, I get the heebie-jeebies," said Vicki Korpa.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

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