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For wildlife, not wildfire

WHITE CITY — Two freshly charred patches within the Denman Wildlife Area look more like moonscapes than meadows, yet they’re well on their way to improving wildlife and reducing wildfire risk in this chunk of urban forest.

Two prescribed burns Wednesday within wildlife-area lands smack-dab within the White City industrial area have reclaimed portions of oak savanna and Ponderosa pine stands encircling meadows that over time have been overrun by other trees and blackberries.

Burning them away will reclaim the meadows for black-tailed deer, hawks, owls, quail and the occasional wayward pheasant that all call these meadows home — just like they have for centuries.

“We’re putting fire in here once every 15 or 20 years, which is what the historical fire regimen is,” Denman manager Clayton Barber said.

Moreover, the meadows were burned by an Oregon Department of Forestry crew that doesn’t want to be called back to places like this during a wildfire.

Large swaths of the 1,760-acre, state-owned wildlife area are choked with grasses, brush and other wildfire fuels as well as standing oaks and pines that can burn hot and rapidly should wildfire move through here.

“Parts of Denman have quite a bit of standing fuels,” Barber said. “I want to make sure we reduce our fuels, reduce our risks.”

The wildlife area isn’t alone among stands of thick vegetation and trees along the Rogue Valley floor that is otherwise dominated by grasslands, scrub brush and development.

“Anywhere where there’s a lot of condensed and dried fuels is a worry for us,” ODF spokeswoman Natalie Weber said. “It’s kind of everywhere.”

Places like the wildlife area perhaps are at their most prone for a dangerous wildfire now at the tail end of fire season when the brush, grasses and downed woody material are at their driest, Weber said.

“It’s the driest time of the year right now,” Weber said. “It’s kind of a perfect storm for a fire to start and spread very rapidly.”

The prescribed burns were in the Little Butte Creek area of the wildlife area between Agate road and the Rogue River.

Barber said a similar burn occurred two years ago on about 40 acres of the wildlife area, largely for removal of the nonnative Himalayan blackberries that are the bane of the wildlife area. Wildlife area biologists then returned to chemically spray any blackberry shoots that survived the flames.

Those meadows are now lush with high grasses that prove to be fertile grounds for everything from deer and foxes to owls, hawks and the field mice they stalk.

Losing wild meadows and oak savannas to the encroaching forest has been a theme in southwestern Oregon, where conifers creep in and over time create an overstory that dominates and eventually swallows the meadows and savannas.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has used volunteer crews to cut and haul offending conifers from a series of meadows east of Gold Beach within the past year. Likewise, commercial crews recently cleared conifers around oak savannas around the sides of Upper and Lower Table Rocks.

The wildlife area is owned and managed by the ODFW and it turned to its sister agency, state forestry, for the underburns.

The burns were conducted under an $18,000 federal grant, with about $6,000 worth of in-kind work by state forestry crews who will continue to monitor the burn area for any smoldering remnants.

Barber said he’s been working on getting the meadows burned for about five years, but it’s difficult to get a good enough burn window where temperatures, air quality and ODF availability can all align like it did Wednesday.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTwriterFreeman.

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