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Transient-related fires on the rise

A short distance from Railroad Park in northwest Medford, a warren of trails along Bear Creek leads to a cluster of campsites used by people.

Those illegal sites often mean illegal campfires, which pose a threat to nearby structures and to the firefighters who sometimes have difficulty gaining access to them.

“It is a pretty dangerous situation for our guys,” said Greg Kleinberg, fire marshal with Medford Fire-Rescue. “We’ve had people jump out with a knife. We see needles. It’s kind of a hazmat situation.”

Because illegal campfires have been on the rise, Medford Fire-Rescue last winter began compiling a list of transient-related fires that required firefighter response. Since last December, 62 fires have made it onto the list, with 32 that required suppression by firefighters. Since January, Medford police have responded to 45 calls for fires along the Greenway.

Kleinberg said firefighters are still getting used to the new data-entry system, so he doesn’t think all the transient fires have been reflected in the data. In the winter months, warming or cooking fires, though illegal, are sometimes referred to Medford police.

Most of the fires lit by transients are near the Bear Creek Greenway, according to a map Kleinberg provided. The most fires were near Highway 62 and Interstate 5, as well as the downtown.

Because major roads run near the Greenway, any sign of fire arouses suspicion with the public.

“We get lots of calls for columns of smoke,” Kleinberg said.

Sometimes, Medford police officers are called in at night, because entering a homeless camp could endanger firefighters, particularly if they encounter someone high on drugs.

Even though it’s fall, when temperatures are lower and humidity levels are higher, a fire getting out of control remains a threat because of scant rainfall since October.

A July 17 fire that burned 97 acres near Costco was believed to have been started by a transient. The fire killed 60-year-old Robert Lee Walker, damaged three homes, burned six outbuildings and delayed flights out of the Medford airport. The fire started in Central Point but burned into the city limits of Medford.

On Aug. 24, 2010, a fire started by a homeless man in Ashland destroyed 11 houses in the Oak Knoll subdivision near Interstate 5.

On Thursday, Kleinberg walked along the Greenway near Railroad Park pointing to areas scorched by previous fires that required quick action by firefighters. He also noticed evidence of fresh campfires.

The city of Medford has been working on a long-term effort to clean up vegetation near the Greenway, such as an area near a mobile home park across from Railroad Park. Kleinberg said brush removal helps create defensible space for the residences. The city hopes to eventually turn it into a park.

Medford police perform monthly health and safety operations along the Greenway. On average, about two tons of trash are removed from targeted areas, and illegal camps are removed.

Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said it is a dangerous situation for emergency responders heading into homeless camps.

“That’s the reality,” he said. “The homeless are often using illegal drugs. It’s a constant battle for us.”

Even though law enforcement sweeps areas of the Greenway, filling up 30-yard Dumpsters, the homeless people go right back into the same locations in a few days.

“We just don’t have the manpower to do nightly sweeps,” he said.

When police do a sweep, it can be overwhelming and messy for officers.

“There are enormous amounts of trash and human waste,” he said. “One officer said it’s like a parent cleaning his child’s room only to have to go back and clean it again a few days later.”

The city has made some headway on the homeless issue. Areas under bridges, which were popular camping areas, have been fenced off, Budreau said.

But with so many issues to deal with and so many areas where homeless people hang out in Medford, police just don’t have the manpower to stay on top of it, he said.

“Honestly, we think we could have a team of officers do full-time homeless enforcement,” Budreau said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him @reporterdm.

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