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Talent wildfire, urban landscape symposium offered

The Talent Cafe, Subway, Crown Market and Julek's Restaurant, all on Highway 99 in Talent, fell victim to the Almeda Fire Sept. 8, 2020. [Photo by Denise Baratta]

The Almeda Fire was a case where homes were catching other homes on fire, and trees were kind of the innocent bystanders, says Chris Adlam, Oregon State University’s southwest fire specialist.

Adlam is one of the experts who will speak at a free symposium on Talent’s wildfire and the urban landscape at an all-day symposium Friday, Jan. 20, in the Camelot Theatre.

The city’s Urban Forestry Committee has put the program together with support from the city to explain what happened during the fire and what can be done to reduce future impacts from such a conflagration. Participants will learn more about the fire, how urban plants and trees responded and how to rebuild in a fire-wise and resilient way.

“We saw a need to address what we have been witnessing in the rebuilding process. There is a lack of large canopy trees being replanted,” said Mike Oxendine, who is on the committee and was hired as the city’s hazard mitigation coordinator two months ago.

“I think that is partially due to people’s fears of what happened during Almeda and some misconceptions,” said Oxendine. Some are hesitant to put trees back, fearing they may contribute to structures burning in a future fire.

Another factor slowing tree replacement, Oxendine says, is the cost of rebuilding. Homeowners are finding greater costs, and landscaping often is one of the last items in reconstruction budgets.

“A lot of homeowners are struggling to put in higher-caliber trees,” said Oxendine. He and committee members will have information on three grant programs available to help homeowners with planting on their sites. Oxendine also will talk about what is happening with grants to create more resilience in the town and along the Greenway.

“The bigger picture to me was how horrific it was to see structures setting other structures on fire and then moving on to the next neighborhood,” said Adlam. By putting in parks and greenways, the flow of fire to neighborhoods can be contained while creating spaces for firefighters to work from, he said.

Trees on the upwind side of destroyed homes were still green in many cases, but the trees downwind often were burned, said Adlam. Trees that had irrigation showed better survival, said Oxendine.

After Almeda, the Rogue Valley already knows what the worst-case scenario looks like, and local planners can work backward from that, said Adlam. The situation of hot, dry, strong east winds in September or October would be needed to trigger a similar conflagration, he said.

“With a little bit of careful urban planning, we can have healthy forests and healthy urban green spaces without increasing a risk of wildfires,” said Adlam. He plans to give a brief presentation, then open up a dialogue with those present.

Participants will be able to drop in to hear various presentations depending upon their schedules. As of Tuesday, 100 people were signed up for the event. The theater seats 165.

Other speakers include:

  • Tyler McCarty, head of the Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest District. McCarty will talk about the Almeda Fire from the ODF perspective. The agency found itself fighting three large blazes that day.
  • Eugene Wier, riparian restoration and ecology specialist with the Fresh Water Trust. He will explain impacts of the fire on a plot on Wagner Creek where nonnative vegetation, such as blackberries, had been removed, and the trees in the plot withstood the fire.
  • Rachel Werling is a biologist with Oregon State University Extension Service locally. She will talk about native plants for fire-wise landscaping.
  • Brain Bolstad, a former science teacher, is now with Jackson County Fire District No. 5. He will talk about ideas for fire resilience as rebuilding takes place.
  • Dr. Geoffrey Donovan is with the U.S. Forest Service in Portland. He has written a number of papers on the benefits of urban forests and the relationship between urban forests and people’s behaviors.

The day begins with refreshments at 8 a.m., followed by Talent Councilor Jason Clark’s introduction at 8:15. Oxendine will talk about the state of Talent’s urban forest at 8:30. Donovan will speak on the value and importance of urban forests at 9 a.m., followed by Werling on native plants for fire-wise landscapes at 10. Adlam speaks at 11 a.m. on how fire responds to urban forests.

After a lunch break, Bolstad will speak on fire hardening and preventative measures at 1 p.m., followed by McCarty on the ODF perspective of the 2020 wildfires at 1:30. Wier speaks at 2 p.m. on Wagner Creek’s restoration past and future. At 2:30 p.m. Donovan speaks again on equity, human health and the urban forest. A panel discussion by all presenters with audience questions and answers will occur at 3 p.m.

Among those attending will be state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, Scott Altenhoff with ODF’s urban forest program and the mayor and city councilors from Talent.

The symposium is open to anyone who lives in the area affected by the Almeda Fire. The committee also is planning to offer a second symposium conducted in Spanish.

To sign up, email Oxendine at moxendine@cityoftalent.org or call 541-535-1566, ext. 1020.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Correction: This story was revised to correct the date of the Talent symposium to Friday, Jan. 20.