Peninger fire.jpg
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
The Peninger fire burns along Biddle Road in Central Point Tuesday.

Enhanced Greenway patrols to look for fires

Four grass fires in a month along the Bear Creek Greenway, including one that burned 97 acres and killed a homeless man in Central Point, have local police and fire officials on the lookout for people who still insist on lighting campfires.

On Thursday afternoon, two days after the human-caused Peninger fire brought Central Point to a standstill, Medford police arrested Elaina Marie Mann, 42, after they saw her light a campfire along the Greenway near the Garfield overpass, according to Medford police Deputy Chief Scott Clauson.

Mann was booked into the Jackson County Jail on a misdemeanor reckless burning charge and released Friday.

Based on her behavior, detectives considered Mann a person of interest in a July 12 fire that closed freeway ramps near north Medford Exit 30, according to Clauson. Police believe the July 12 fire was arson based on multiple ignition points, but detectives determined that Mann’s campfire July 19 was “an isolated incident.”

“It’s still a very reckless thing,” Clauson said.

Earlier in the week, the three-alarm Peninger fire, rapidly carried by wind after starting several feet from a transient camp, ultimately killed 60-year-old Robert Lee Walker, damaged three homes, burned six outbuildings, delayed flights at the Medford airport and prompted scores of evacuations within a two-mile radius in Central Point.

The Peninger fire was the third grass fire along the bike path in a week that investigators determined to be human-caused.

Medford Fire-Rescue witnessed transients fleeing the area while responding to grass fires July 12 and 13 near Exit 30 along the Greenway.

The morning before the July 12 fire, Medford police had conducted its monthly enforcement sweep along the Greenway, arresting 11 people at illegal camps along the bike path. Medford police have been performing the midnight sweeps for more than a decade.

Within a week of the last sweep, only one of the 11 people booked in the jail on outstanding warrants remained there.

Fires along the Bear Creek Greenway are hardly new, with numerous grass fires reported along the bike path over the years. In July 2016, nine Greenway fires were reported, including one that caused a wildland firefighter to suffer smoke inhalation.

Earlier this week, Jackson County Roads and Parks Director John Vial said that where the Peninger fire burned in Central Point, the county and ODOT had cleared brush near the Greenway behind the Expo and the new RV park, but wind still spread the fire.

“This is about people’s behavior,” Vial said.

Enhanced patrols along the Greenway within Medford city limits started Friday evening, according to Clauson, and will continue at undisclosed times at least for the remainder of the month. Separate from the enhanced patrols, Medford police will handle Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Greenway patrol duties during the Country Crossings music festival next weekend.

Chad McComas, executive director of the homeless outreach nonprofit Rogue Retreat, said it’s only natural that homeless people are drawn to the bike path. It is close to town, and there are fewer people who would typically order someone living on the streets to move along.

“They end up in the Greenway where nobody wants them to be,” McComas said.

Following the July 12 fires, Rogue Retreat and Access used a $500 grant earmarked for the cooling shelter to distribute to homeless people roughly 60 fire extinguishers “about the size of a soda can.”

“It’s just an obvious thing when you have people on the Greenway,” McComas said. “We can’t keep the homeless off the Greenway, because there’s no place to take them.”

An underlying issue, according to McComas, is that “the homeless population is growing.”

An ACCESS survey showed there were 732 homeless people in Jackson County the last week of January this year, a 15.6 percent increase from the same period in 2017 — the highest number since 2012, although the largest number over the past 10 years was 2011, when 1,049 were counted.

Rogue Retreat is currently advocating for a year-round homeless shelter, but McComas believes a shorter-term solution is an area where homeless people can camp legally.

McComas dismissed the idea that a camp would draw more homeless people to the area, saying the issue of homelessness hits virtually every city along the West Coast, including smaller cities such as Redding and Eugene.

“Which major city is not struggling with homelessness?” McComas said.

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

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