Talent Strong: The Aftermath of an Inferno
By Gerlinde Smith
The night of September 7, 2020, was eerie. The temperature hovered around 60°F, with sustained winds at 30 mph and gusts upward of 50 mph. Since we had not been blessed with any precipitation for months, the ground was bone dry and a lot of vegetation was crispy.
The next morning, September 8, Talent’s Bee City USA committee met to certify Talent’s 59th pollinator garden, remarking on the lovely garden design with its beautifully thriving and healthy plants. During the meeting, we also shared our concerns over the unsettling wind and high temperature, which by then had climbed to 100°F.
Late that morning, a wildfire lurched to life in a dry brush field along Almeda Drive on the northern edge of Ashland, just south of our town. In no time at all, the winds from the east pushed the fire north along our Greenway bike path. In only a few hours, it raced through our region, devouring power poles, blackberry vines, trees—and eventually, our homes and businesses. From the northern tip of Ashland, through Talent, on to Phoenix, and engulfing southern Medford, the inferno consumed more than 2,600 homes. The Alameda Fire was declared the most destructive urban conflagration in Oregon’s recorded history.
The town and surrounding land looked like a war zone. The majority of our residents had to evacuate because there was no water, electricity, or internet connection. It took some time until these utility services were reinstated. We walked around shocked and dazed, trying to help those who lost everything. So much of the land was blackened and contaminated by the fire. Trees stood like charred sentinels, especially along our waterways.
It has been a challenge recovering from this cataclysmic fire in the middle of a pandemic. Yet our city administration, businesses, and community members came together and have been working to rebuild lives, homes, and businesses (80% of which were destroyed).
Talent was the second Bee City designated in the USA. The person instrumental to this designation, and former chair of our local organization, Dolly Warden, moved to Washington state after the fire. Talent’s Bee City USA committee regrouped quickly, with two established members and five energetic new ones. We joined with other groups and individuals to help with the restoration of pollinator habitats damaged by the fire. Partners included the Talent Garden Club, Friends of Wagner Creek, Plant Oregon, Rogue Native Plant Partnership, and others.
The national Bee City USA organization encouraged us to apply for funding from their Disaster Relief Fund, a fund meant to assist Bee City and Bee Campus affiliates recovering from natural disasters. We are truly grateful for the $1,000 we were awarded to help rebuild pollinator habitat following the fire!
With the aforementioned groups and individuals, we contributed to the restoration along the Upper Talent Pond major riparian area and beyond. Thus far, 200 native shrubs and trees have been planted, native pollinator plants and native grasses were seeded, and necessary soil amendments were added to the heavily charred land. The work continues. We will soon be adding “seed bombs” to encourage more native plants to take up residence in our wild spaces again.
One of the greatest ongoing feats is eradicating the blackberries. Like so many stubborn, unwanted plants, they have been making a strong comeback. Repeatedly cutting them down should eventually control them. These blackberries were brought to our region by the early pioneers, and these invasive plants have proliferated.
Earlier this spring, half a year after the fire, we noticed an alarmingly sharp decline in our native pollinator population. We encouraged everyone with a garden to plant lots of native pollinator-friendly plants. It did not take long until there was a resurgence this summer with different species of pollinators thriving once more. Anyone with mason/leafcutter bee houses has noticed how the chambers filled up quickly. Leafcutter bees and bumble bees—particularly yellow-faced, Hunt’s, and yellow-fronted bumble bees—were regularly seen. Furthermore, we observed the return of many butterfly species, including a few monarchs!
Thankfully, the nine public pollinator gardens that we have created over the past few years, all survived the fire. There were only a few plants singed by flying embers. Phoenix, the community north of us and another Bee City USA affiliate, was not so fortunate; the pollinator garden within Blue Heron Park was completely destroyed. This spring we helped our neighbors with a new garden design. Using biodynamic gardening methods, we brought life back to this garden, to everyone’s delight.
Our community still has a lot of work ahead. Talentians are kind, resourceful, and resilient, and it is heartening to see the emergence of many new homes and gardens. Since that ominous day we have certified another 14 gardens, bringing the total number of gardens supporting pollinators in our community to 73.
The biggest takeaway in this rebuilding process is to plant native species. Not only are they vastly more fire resistant, but they also entice our native pollinators, without which our very survival is at stake.