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Fire clears path to BETTER HOUSING

June Keith hopes the blaze that destroyed a large vacant home near her condo last week is the end of a stressful era for her north Medford neighborhood.

The house, on Crews Road behind the Rogue Valley Mall, has long been a popular destination for homeless squatters, who took refuge in the home and several smaller outbuildings nearby, Keith said.

"They would come in here at all hours of the night," she added. "I would hear them in there breaking glass and making noise."

Medford police Lt. Tim Doney said officers have responded to the home as recently as Feb. 12, when they shooed off two intoxicated trespassers.

The fire has been labeled "suspicious" by investigators, who are seeking the public's help finding anyone who may be responsible for the blaze, Doney said.

"I'm not surprised it burned," Keith said. "I've seen them carrying in those Coleman propane lanterns."

During the fire, Keith and her neighbors sprayed down their condos for fear that the blaze would reach the wooden roof shingles.

Now all that's left of the home is a large pile of rubble surrounding a deep crater. So the safety issues surrounding the property remain very much on the neighbors' minds.

"I'm afraid one of the children around here will fall into that open basement," Keith said.

The Salvation Army, which bought the property in January 2006, worked quickly this week to tear down the home's charred frame. It will begin bulldozing the several other outbuildings later this week to make room for transitional housing, said Salvation Army Development Director Carrie Hanson.

"The house was an imminent danger to the community," Hanson said. "We did not want to take any chances that someone would get hurt."

The Salvation Army has wanted to develop the property for quite some time, requesting permission to tear down the home and the outbuildings "numerous times," Hanson said.

However, they had to wait out a bout of legal wrangling between Medford city officials and Wally Watkins, who previously owned the property.

Medford city attorneys are seeking a court order to force Watkins to remove the building. The city was recently deeded the property in an easement. Watkins claims he still holds a small piece close to the burned home and is resisting the court order, said Medford City Attorney John Huttl.

Watkins was not available for comment.

The legal battle has not stopped the Salvation Army, which will continue its plan to build four-plex units on the property.

"These apartments will be a place where people can begin to secure work and rebuild their lives," Hanson said.

Anyone with information on the fire is asked to call Medford police at 774-4783 or Medford fire inspectors at 774-2300.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

June Keith lives near the abandoned building which burned last Friday night. She has seen and heard people camping in nearby vacant buildings that are owned by the Salvation Army.