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Fire provokes new concerns over welcome center

Ashland's Oak Knoll fire has reignited concerns about a proposed rest area and welcome center south of Exit 14 outside town.

Some Oak Knoll neighborhood residents long have been worried that transients could be attracted to the Oregon Department of Transportation's planned rest area. They fear transients will camp in the area and start fires that could spread to their homes. Neighbors are also worried about criminal activity and noise.

On Aug. 24, a fire allegedly started by John David Thiry, a homeless man, burned a field along Washington Street before jumping across Interstate 5. The fire then destroyed 11 Oak Knoll Drive houses and damaged three other homes.

Rest area opponent and Oak Knoll neighborhood resident Allen Baker, whose home was not burned by the fire, said a blaze coming from the proposed rest area would be even harder to fight than the Oak Knoll fire. The rest area would be farther from Ashland, in a more isolated and hard-to-reach area, he said.

ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming acknowledged that the state agency does struggle with the issue of transients at rest areas. ODOT can ask people who panhandle aggressively to leave, but those people can come back or move on to other rest areas, he said.

In 2009, Jackson County commissioners approved the welcome center and rest area with the caveat that the city of Ashland must agree to provide city water and sewer services.

The county approval was appealed, and the rest area and welcome center's fate now rests with the Oregon Court of Appeals.

A court decision is expected at the end of November, Fletcher said.

— Ashland Daily Tidings

Heat from the Oak Knoll fire melted a shopping cart left near the area where the fire started on Washington Street. Residents opposed to a planned welcome center and rest area south of Exit 14 fear it will attract transients who will camp there and start fires that could spread to their homes. Officials say plans include space for police and better access for fire trucks. Bob Pennell / Daily Tidings - Bob Pennell