Southern Oregon fires: Human-caused fires top the charts over rest of the state

SO. Oregon, PART 1. — The 2019 fire season is fast approaching and it could be another disastrous summer in southern Oregon.

NBC5 News has uncovered new Oregon Department of Forestry data that shows southern Oregon blew away the rest of the state in human-caused fires.

In 2018, southern Oregon tripled the other regions of the state in terms of the number of fires. What was really significant though, was that the Southwest District also had far and away the most human-caused fires. Most were small and easily controlled but some, under the right conditions, turned devastating.

People like Dean Hackworth remember that devastation and Hackworth himself still remembers the day July 17 vividly.

“I got a call from my stepmom, I was over at my daughter’s and she said, ‘Get back home, there’s a fire,'” he said.

With blackened trees and scorched dirt still lining his property in Central Point, how could Dean forget?

“Several people, sheriff’s and everybody around here just tell us to get out because the fire was right there,” said Dean.

Hot temperatures, dry grass, and heavy winds helped ignite a transient campfire that afternoon of July 17 on the Bear Creek Greenway. Known as the Penninger Fire, it spread like nothing people had seen locally before forcing several neighborhoods like Dean’s to evacuate.

“You’re kind of helpless,” he said pointing to the line of burnt trees that stopped short of his property. “It came right through here, went through that way and then the wind shifted and then came right up to there.”

Luckily, shifting winds saved Dean’s home. But once it was over, the fire had destroyed nearly 100 acres, several structures and claimed the life of one man, 60-year-old Robert Lee Walker, a transient living on the greenway.

That was just one human-caused fire.

At the end of 2018, the southern Oregon area had 541 fires that weren’t from natural causes. In the Southwest District alone there were 262, over a quarter of the human-caused fires in the state. The next closest district was in Douglas County at just 90 fires.

Data from ODF shows that the top culprits were equipment use, debris burns, and recreation. While lighting caused the most destruction in terms of acreage, no one died in those fires.

Human-caused fires like the Penninger and the Ramsey Canyon Fire near Gold Hill were just as dangerous and affected more than just homes.

“I’ve been at the Medford airport for about 10 years and that is the first that I have experienced having a fire that close,” said Debbie Smith, deputy director of security for the Rogue Valley International Airport.

A vital economic element to the Rogue Valley, the Medford airport faced some tense moments during the Penninger.

“We were getting minute by minute updates in regards to how close that fire was to the terminal, to our passengers and taking all things into consideration,” said Smith.

Even when the Ramsey Canyon Fire broke out accidentally from equipment use, high levels of smoke and debris clouded the air. Flights to and from the airport were delayed and diverted.

“Depending on the air carriers they were not able to get in or out,” she said.

For residents like Dean, life on the greenway continues but there’s still a gnawing feeling of “what if.”

“It’s scary for people that live near the greenway, they have built a life here,” he said.

A simple, negligent mistake threatened that livelihood of many. But with wind shifts playing a key role, homes like Dean’s were saved.

But in other cases like the Carr Fire in Redding, winds weren’t so forgiving. That fire was started after a car’s wheel rim scraped the asphalt and sparked.

Fire agencies like ODF understand accidents can happen but there are lines that can be crossed where negligence leads to disaster.

In the case of Oregon’s fires, many were lucky, but if this trend of human-caused fires continues that luck may soon run out.

“All I can say was it was intense and hopefully we don’t go through that in the near future,” said Smith.

To read Part 2 of NBC5 News special report, click here.

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