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Jamie LuschAn outbuilding burns off of Biddle Road inside the Central Point Fire on Tuesday.

Body found in burned area of Central Point fire

A man's body has been found in a transient camp in the path of a Central Point wildfire that prompted scores of evacuations.

Detectives are conducting a death investigation in an area burned in Tuesday’s Peninger fire, according to a press release issued by the Jackson County Sheriff's Office; however, investigators have not yet concluded whether the man died before or during the fire.

The body was spotted within the fire perimeter by helicopter at 11:23 a.m. Thursday, while sheriff's deputies and Jackson County Fire District 3 had been surveying damage to assess future law enforcement and fire-prevention needs, according to the release.

Although Fire District 3 has stated the Central Point fire is believed to have started near a transient camp, sheriff's deputies have not yet stated whether the body was found near the same camp.

"At any given time, transient camps are scattered throughout the Greenway," Jackson County Sheriff's Sgt. Julie Denney said in an email.

Detectives are still working to identify the man, and an autopsy will be performed to determine the cause of death. Anyone with information is asked to call the sheriff's office tip line at 541-774-8333 and reference case number 18-14794.

The three-alarm Peninger fire, which started near Gate 1 of the Jackson County Expo near the Rogue Valley Family Fun Center, burned 97 acres, singed three homes, destroyed five outbuildings and damaged another outbuilding. The fire prompted scores of evacuations and road closures as winds carried the fast-moving fire toward the Medford airport, where it was stopped at Biddle Road.

The fire was the fourth along the Bear Creek Greenway in the span of eight days, District 3 Chief Robert Horton said.

On July 9, a 10-acre grass fire along the Medford portion of the Greenway behind Crater Lake Ford and AAA RV closed a portion of northbound Interstate 5.

Transients have been a factor in at least the three latest Greenway fires.

A two-alarm fire that temporarily closed north Medford Exit 30 freeway ramps July 12 had multiple ignition points, according to Medford police, but Medford Fire-Rescue said investigators couldn't isolate a cause. Crews witnessed transients fleeing the area, however.

More transients were seen fleeing the area a day later, when a second fire broke out in the same location along the Greenway.

Fire District 3 investigators have determined that the Peninger fire, which prompted evacuations in east Central Point Tuesday evening, had been human-caused, according to Horton.

The three-alarm fire's origin has been narrowed to a roughly 8-foot-diameter area near a transient camp, according to an earlier Fire District 3 release. The fire's cause remains under investigation, and fire investigators agency is still working with the sheriff's office to pinpoint possible suspects and to determine whether the fire was set intentionally, according to Horton.

Jackson County Roads Director John Vial said the county works to mitigate fuels along the Greenway, but those efforts performed behind The Expo and behind the new RV park didn't stop the Central Point fire from spreading.

“Where the (Peninger) fire had burned, a fuel reduction program had already been done,” Vial said. "It swept through fields that were already mowed."

Short of removing all vegetation or installing a costly sprinkler system, Greenway maintenance only goes so far, according to Vial.

"This is about people's behavior," Vial said.

Horton said that although it "sounds silly out loud" to talk about providing fire safety lessons to transients, outreach to them could be helpful.

"Every person we have contact with should certainly be engaged in what's fire safe," Horton said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

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