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The Almeda fire: a disaster waiting to happen

Fires on or adjacent to the Bear Creek Greenway shouldn’t surprise anyone. While weather conditions made the Almeda fire unique in its devastation, in recent years dozens of such fires have occurred as a predictable consequence of allowing illegal camps to flourish along the Greenway between Ashland and Central Point.

The camps, including those near the origin of the Almeda Fire, are occupied through the evasion of laws by the signatories of the Greenway’s Joint Powers Agreement (JPA), a management agreement between Jackson County and the cities of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford and Central Point. Jackson County even refers to the illegal Greenway campers as “residents.”

Despite serving as a de facto publicly owned and run homeless shelter requiring massive amounts of taxpayer dollars for cleanup, policing and fire suppression, the Greenway camps have not evolved through any coherent or adopted policy. Rather, elected officials have used the Greenway as a convenient place to keep a difficult problem largely out of sight while placating demands that they do something. Police, city and county administrators, and parks departments play along and make sure their staff do the same.

Last year I resigned from a 20-year career in government because I was unwilling to play along with them. While working for Jackson County I staffed and participated on committees that dealt directly with impacts of people living on the Greenway. I attempted to talk openly about issues that were continuously being ignored for fear of broaching the taboo subject of homelessness.

My attempts at dialogue resulted in a reprimand from Jackson County Parks managers and I was essentially ordered to toe their line. I quit instead. In my letter of resignation (which was sent to officials including Rep. Pam Marsh and Sen. Jeff Golden) I specifically cited the fire danger associated with allowing people to illegally camp on the Greenway. The letter was ignored.

The Greenway isn’t a homeless shelter or a stretch of land with any capability to safely accommodate “residents.” It’s a non-motorized transportation corridor and recreational trail with a riparian forest canopy that provides critical shade for endangered fish in Bear Creek. And homelessness isn’t something to be hidden away in a thicket of blackberries leaving law enforcement to sort it out. That strategy leaves us all (homeless included) in peril and out of the loop.

Jackson County and the other members of the Greenway’s JPA never consulted the public on the wisdom of allowing people — many with serious criminal records, mental health issues, and/or drug addictions — to set up camp on a hot, windy September day amidst hundreds of acres of parched vegetative fuel stretching from Ashland to Central Point. Instead, they gambled with our lives and property.

Regardless of who is ultimately found responsible, the dangers associated with having the Greenway function as a homeless shelter were there on Sept. 8 and remain there today. The threat to our collective safety (including that of the homeless) has now been realized and can’t be allowed to continue.

Thanks to the Mail Tribune, we’ve learned that some of the same people involved in mismanaging the Greenway are now poised to spend our tax money on utilities, transportation and other infrastructure necessary to temporarily house the newly homeless in Talent and Phoenix. While seeming laudable in intent, such plans must be carefully scrutinized as most, if not all, of those expenses would normally be the developer’s responsibility. We must assure that the temporary “affordable” housing is not replaced by unaffordable permanent housing — particularly if we’re going to pay for the infrastructure. We must also assure that the regional planning process, which spells out how these cities will grow, is respected.

How and where we provide housing for a diverse population — including our homeless — are issues that receive minimal public scrutiny. The Almeda fire has shown that this cannot continue. Our local and state government leaders need to step up and make the hard decisions that their positions of responsibility demand — not give more handouts to developers in the vain hope that it will result in affordable housing and that homelessness will painlessly resolve itself.

Rogue Advocates is an organization based in Jackson and Josephine counties that has a history of holding government accountable for their land-use decisions. We look forward to tackling these difficult issues with an open mind, robust public input, and with people who are committed to the same. If you’d like to join us in this effort, please visit our website.

Craig Anderson was a senior planner for Jackson County between 2007 and 2019 and lives in the Quiet Village neighborhood where the Almeda fire began. He is currently contract staff to Rogue Advocates, a nonprofit land-use advocacy organization based in Jackson and Josephine counties.