ashland.news
July 21, 2024

Rising from the ashes: From Fire to Flowers program offers free gardens for Almeda survivors

Kristina Lefever, president of Pollinator Project Rogue Valley talks about some of the native plants they use to create pollinator gardens for the From Fire to Flowers project. Bob Palermini photo
September 8, 2023

Pollinator Project Rogue Valley hopes to help keep healing growing

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

The Bear Creek Mobile Home Park was overrun by the Almeda Fire on Sept. 8, 2020.

Nestled between Bear Creek and Interstate 5 just northwest of Exit 19 at South Valley View Road, the park is a scant 2 miles from the ignition site of the fire — which winds blew with blow-torch ferocity along the creek directly toward the 68-unit park.

Three years later, driving down Lowe Road, the frontage road leading from the exit into the neighborhood on Thursday, the area is still punctuated by trees blackened with fire scars — dead but standing.

Much of the neighborhood has been rebuilt. On the side of one mobile home, a piece of shining melted metal was mounted above a tiny plaque: “Honda CRV. R.I.P. Sept. 8, 2020.”

An aerial photo shows only ashen smudges remaining in the Bear Creek Mobil Home Park after the Almeda Fire swept through in 2020. Map data ©2023 Google

There is a cul-de-sac in the neighborhood where Bear Creek runs past, where residents were trapped by the fire. On the eve of its anniversary, members of Pollinator Project Rogue Valley sat in the grass beside the creek to talk with a reporter about their “From Fire to Flowers Pollinator Gardens” program — an initiative to install pollinator gardens for Almeda Fire survivors. 

As the burn scar slowly repopulates with homes, the program creates new gardens tailor-made for anyone residing in the burn scar who asks for one. Nine have been installed so far. Four are in Bear Creek Mobile Home Park. Three more are slated to be installed as the weather cools, better for planting.

All but two of the homes in the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park burned down in the Almeda Fire. Many have been replaced in the three years since the fire. Bob Palermini photo

“We have so many gardens and gardeners in this neighborhood and, believe it or not, most people don’t know each other, so this is about building those relationships so people can swap seeds, learn from each other,” said Vanessa Henson, the From Fire to Flowers garden coordinator.

The Pollinator Project has been working to protect the habitat of native pollinator species and educate the public for their preservation since 2015. It became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2021, said volunteer President Kristina Lefever.

The Almeda Fire consumed an abundance of habitat for bees, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, beetles and hummingbirds. By creating the From Fire to Flowers program, the organization can help restore lost habitat — and offer something for fire survivors, Lefever said.

Henson became garden coordinator in response to what she saw after the fire. Henson and her husband own an excavation company, C3 Enterprises. Their company began helping excavate the ruins from the day after the fire until a year and a half after it. Combing through the remains of so many homes was painful. But as much as she has found healing in creating the gardens, she finds herself offering healing too.

“I have found in doing this, that you really just have to be a listener. Even though we’re here discussing gardens and things, there’s still that heart,” Henson said.

Tiina Beaver, program coordinator (left) and Vanessa Henson, garden coordinator of the From Fire to Flowers Project. Bob Palermini photo

Throughout the process, survivors routinely express grief not only for the home’s they’ve lost, but the wider extension of home in the landscape, said Tiina Beaver, the Fire to Flowers program coordinator.

When a survivor says, “‘There used to be that tree, it used to be right there’— you can just feel their attachment to the plants,” she said.

The first meeting to discuss the garden can sometimes be consumed with fire survivors sharing their story. But gardens take time and there are many meetings. It begins with a short application on the Pollinator Project website. Henson takes in information about the future gardener’s fitness and mobility, their gardening knowledge and experience, the dimensions of space available, and their wishes.

As a professional landscape designer with her own company — Constant Gardener — Beaver takes the information from Henson and designs a garden for each applicant. Once Pollinator Project’s volunteers finish installing the garden, Henson works with the recipient to teach care and expectations for the plants.

A completed project at the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park contains many native, pollinator friendly plants. Bob Palermini photo

“We’ve been programmed to keep things tidy and neat, but Mother Nature doesn’t work that way. We need to have different care in different seasons,” Henson said.

Survivors are surprised to learn the gardens are either free or for a limited cost. Recipients are encouraged to donate toward the garden if they can, Henson said, but they frequently work with low-income survivors who are not expected to contribute. The program endeavors to keep the cost to install gardens under $200 to install. The support of sponsors like Plant Oregon, Indigo Creek and the Gordon Elwood Foundation help, Lefever said.

Walking through the mobile home park, Lefever, Beaver and Henson point to growth in gardens they’ve installed. Lefever stopped to admire butterflies fluttering over a recently created garden. The Pearly Everlasting would double in size by next year, she said, pointing to a small icy-blue plant, host to American lady butterflies.

Up the slope from the creek, toward the owner’s office, was a yard half full of raised beds brimming with peppers and tomatoes. But a stretch of wood chips on the side of the mobile home lay empty. Hensen said these chips have been installed as mulch and, once the weather cools, this home is on the list for a new garden.

Mike Skinner, owner of the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park, talks about the day the Almeda Fire came through the park, destroying all but two of the homes. Bob Palermini photo

A few lots away, park owner Bill Skinner took a break from working on his excavator. He was grateful, he said, to see gardens multiplying as many of his tenants return.

On Sept. 8, 2020, he was unable to make it to the park from his home in Central Point before first responders blocked the road. Smoke had completely obscured it. Skinner said he has owned the park for over 25 years. He knows many of his tenants personally.

“We had one tenant, Wayne. … He was a disabled vet from Vietnam, he’s blind. … He couldn’t see very well, but he could feel the heat, so he just ran down that way, ended up in the creek, spent three hours or so in the creek waiting for the fire to pass. He somehow found Highway 99 and ended up getting picked up by somebody,” he said.

After the event, everybody else in the neighborhood was accounted for, except Wayne. The FEMA forensics team was combing through his lot. Skinner remembered the call from the hospital telling him Wayne was safe there.

A completed project at the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park contains many native, pollinator friendly plants, including coyote mint. Bob Palermini photo

He looked around at the new mobile homes, many surrounded by flowers and plants.

“It looked pretty much like a lost cause right after,” he said.

Lefever said gardeners are encouraged to join the Pollinator Project’s Buzzmap. The map tracks pollinator gardens throughout the valley to see where pollinators can find food and shelter.

“What if you could think about having butterflies that flew from the (Cascade-Siskiyou National) Monument down into Bear Creek? … I like to ask people, ‘How do you go about saving any creature? You feed it,’” Lefever said.

To learn more about how to apply for a pollinator garden, volunteer, or support the Fire to Flowers program, visit pollinatorprojectroguevalley.org/from-fire-to-flowers-gardens.

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

More about the Almeda Fire on its third anniversary:

Almeda Fire-fight memories still burn bright 3 years after fire put out

‘It’s not a cold case’: Investigators still search for Almeda Fire cause

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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