JACKSON COUNTY, Ore. — Last year’s Penninger Fire is etched in many memories.
“My husband was calling me saying that we’re trying to get everything out… they’re telling us we’re going to have to evacuate, the fire’s heading toward us… it jumped the creek,” said Elena Gealon, Central Point resident.
The 100-acre fire sparked on the greenway on July 17th. Within minutes, it edged close to many Central Point homes.
None were lost, but one man died.
“We know that he had been living on the greenway and the place that he died was in the middle of the fire area, so it had overcome him at some point,” said
Sgt. Julie Denney of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.
She says on routine sweeps of the greenway deputies encounter a number of fire pits in illegal camps. Sometimes, there are 20 to 30 camps per sweep.
“They will use them for cooking, they will use them for staying warm,” she said.
“They’re cooking. That’s what they’re doing,” said Helen Funk, Director of the Jackson County Expo. “They’re figuring out ways to cook their food and sometimes fires get away from them.”
A few years ago, Funk remembers seeing flames by the expo the night before the fair was set to begin.
“That’s not a great feeling to have when you’re getting ready to throw a party for 80,000 people,” said Funk.
She says in the four years she’s been the director of the Expo, they’ve called in a half a dozen fires.
“Most of us only think of the summer because that’s when we see the major wildfires when we look at the smoke, but these folks… they’re doing their campfires all year-round,” said Funk.
With close to 90 percent of fires in Oregon listed as human-caused, the greenway is an area fire agencies watch closely.
“There is so much activity on it, it’s such a long stretch of land, and there’s so much flammable fuels surrounding it,” said Ashley Blakely, Fire District 3.
Although the Penninger Fire is still under investigation, Blakely says it sparked near a transient camp on the greenway.
“We evacuated hundreds of people, shut down a main thoroughfare to our international airport, people getting to and from home, to and from work,” said Blakely.
Since 2012, she says the agency’s had roughly 49 calls about fires sparking on the greenway. And because of all the trees, brush, and narrow spaces, access can be a challenge.
“Crews have used bladder bags to get to some of those smaller fires so they can put the fire out quickly with just a small amount of water,” she said.
Melissa Cano, Emergency Manager for the city of Medford, agrees.
“That could mean the difference between a fire being knocked down in a minute or two upon arrival… or 10 to 15 depending on accessibility,” she said.
Cano says Medford Fire-Rescue has responded to nearly 200 incidents on the greenway since 2012.
“There’s been an increase of fires started on the greenway in the past few years,” she said.
And according to the data, nearly 60 percent of the responses were fires started by transients. However, Cano says there were likely more fires they never sent a truck to.
“It’s difficult because it depends is that cooking fire or is that warming fire happening in the middle of fire season? Or is it during the winter months… where someone can maybe, possibly, freeze to death,” she said.
The calls agencies respond to on the greenway also vary, from the predictable to the peculiar. A log of calls from the Medford Police Department in 2018 includes things like transients lighting a fire behind a school, under a bridge, and setting fire to shoes.
Since 2012, there have been 233 fires on the greenway.
That’s an average of nearly 30 fires every year and we’re only halfway through this year.
“I have a new respect for fire though and a new compassion for Hornbrook and anyone who’s had to deal with it… cause it’s terrifying. It’s really scary,” said Gealon.
Coming up in part 3 of this exclusive report on Wednesday, we’ll look at where some of the trash on the greenway ends up. And why it’s costing thousands of dollars to clean up.
“Bacteria levels in Bear Creek is an issue,” said Craig Tuss, Rogue Valley Council of Governments.
If you missed part one, click here.
Amanda Rose is a multimedia journalist for NBC5 News. Amanda graduated from Columbia University earning a Master’s degree in Journalism. She also received a Bachelor’s degree in English with a specialization in literature from the University of British Columbia. She’s a Los Angeles native, but is thrilled to return to the beautiful Pacific Northwest and is passionate about reporting on the criminal justice system.