Scientists examine the seeds of life

The wooded hillside spreading before Vince Oredson provides a panoramic view of what wildfire can do to a brushy stand of trees, and what a strong hiker with a seed-spreader can afterward.

Flames from last September's Siskiyou fire left acres of dead Ponderosa pine and madrone and scoured much of the underbrush, as well.

Beneath these ebony trunks lie pockets of green grass, sprouted from seeds spread by landowners and contractors shortly after the smoke cleared here.

"I think this is beautiful," says Oredson, a habitat biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's a clean slate. It's all going to grow back into green vegetation."

But just what this new beauty will look like, and how long it will take to get there, is at the heart of a new study looking into how effective artificial seeding can be when it comes to helping nature rebound after wildfires in the Rogue Valley foothills.

Oredson and his fellow ODFW biologists are studying how quickly and effectively mixes of native grasses and non-native seeds planted in parts of the Siskiyou burn will flourish on the charred hillsides southwest of Ashland.

The study also will look at how well the various seed mixes planted last fall cloak the hillsides, how well they suppress noxious weeds such as star thistle and whether either seed formula does a better job than nature at rejuvenating the hillsides.

The result will be a clearer picture for biologists looking at how best to stabilize slopes, curb erosion, create wildlife forage and restore places for critters to hide after future fires.

"We know we're going to have more wildfires in the urban interface here," says Steve Niemela, an ODFW wildlife biologist joining Oredson on the study. "We want to see what comes back and how quickly it responds."

The Siskiyou fire has provided the perfect lab for such an inquiry.

The fire erupted Sept. 21 when someone accidentally or intentionally touched off a tinder-dry hillside southwest of Highway 99. Flames swept through 190 acres of pine, madrone and brush, engulfed one vacant home and threatened dozens of others before firefighters were able to quell the blaze.

Investigators believe the fire was human-caused, but won't say whether they think it constitutes arson. No suspects have been publicly identified.

The Siskiyou fire ignited the same day as the Deer Ridge fire, which burned 633 acres of the east Medford foothills, largely on the slopes of RoxyAnn Peak.

The most immediate threats after fall wildfires include erosion on unstable slopes, loss of topsoil, an infusion of noxious weeds and loss of forage and cover habitat for wildlife ranging from foxes and woodpeckers to black-tailed deer.

In October, the ODFW provided a mix of native and non-native grass seed to landowners for dispersal on about 300 acres of hills burned in the two blazes.

Some landowners spread their own seed, while a private contractor dispersed the rest under the $20,000 project, which was paid through the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District and the ODFW's Access and Habitat Program.

Niemela and Oredson decided to turn the hills burned by the Siskiyou fire into a laboratory. They set out to determine whether either of the two seed mixes performed faster or better than nature or each other at rejuvenating grass and brush.

Niemela chose a 137-acre chunk of the fire area and used a computer to identify 83 randomly selected sample sites within three test areas — one unplanted, one planted with native seed and one planted with a non-native seed mix used regularly around the valley after fires.

The sites were plotted using Global Positioning System units. Niemela, Oredson and two seasonal ODFW employees began hiking to the plots last week to inventory the results.

A 100-square-centimeter area is surveyed to see what percentage of that area contains grass, what percent of it is young brush and what percent is leaves and downed wood.

Also, the plots are measured to see how far they are from the closest tree — a key ingredient in determining how quickly hiding cover is created for foxes and other animals that lived in the area before the fire.

Early measurements show relatively light percentages of new foliage, Niemela says. The sites will be resampled in spring, then again next spring.

"You look out now and you see these little patches of green but most of it is still soil," Niemela says. "In two or three months, it could be lush. We'll see."

Photographs of some of the plots, as well as photos of the view toward Ashland from the burn area, will be taken in five-year increments so they can be compared to what is there now.

"That way, we can see what the vegetation looks like long-term," Niemela says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or

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