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County could close off-trail Greenway areas during fire season

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneJackson County is proposing to close off-trail areas on county land along the Bear Creek Greenway during fire season.
Trespassing could bring $250 fine

Jackson County will likely close off-trail areas of county land along the Bear Creek Greenway during fire season to reduce fire danger there.

People who wander into the closed areas or camp there could face a $250 fine, although Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said deputies would try warning people first.

Jackson County commissioners talked about the proposed closure during a Tuesday work session. They appear likely to adopt an order closing off-trail areas during fire season at a future meeting.

“Obviously the health and safety of Jackson County residents is paramount,” said Commissioner Rick Dyer.

Commissioner Dave Dotterrer said he supports the concept.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts said she has concerns about closing public property to people and wondered about the number of residents who could be impacted.

The Oregon Department of Forestry hasn’t yet declared a start to the fire season in southwest Oregon. The agency and fire departments have already been fighting to stamp out a rash of spring fires, often from people’s burn piles that get out of control.

Under the county’s proposal, the public could still use the Greenway path plus 10 feet to either side of the trail. That would create a usable corridor about 30 feet wide, said Jackson County Counsel Joel Benton.

Strong winds blew the September 2020 Almeda fire from Ashland toward Medford along the Greenway, I-5 and Highway 99 corridor, destroying almost 2,500 homes.

The Greenway remains a danger zone because fires can start there and be transmitted by flammable vegetation in the area, Benton said.

“This is about fire prevention and keeping the Greenway safe and keeping our community safe,” said Jackson County Parks and Recreation Department Director John Vial.

The popular walking, jogging and biking path stretches through multiple government jurisdictions plus private land. Agencies including Jackson County are working to cut back the vegetation that is regrowing after being partially consumed by the Almeda fire.

Fires could be started by anyone from a homeless person to a Greenway user wandering off the trail and dropping a cigarette, Vial said.

“This is Southern Oregon. No matter how hard we try, the Greenway is going to get dry and be like tinder in the summertime. We have a high risk, and so we’re trying to manage that risk,” Vial said.

Firefighters can easily access fires that break out along the wide, paved Greenway path, but it’s much harder to get back into the wild areas away from the path, said Jackson County Parks and Road Department Program Manager Steve Lambert.

After the Almeda fire, the county posted signs warning people to stay on the path because of fire-damaged hazard trees and other dangers. Crews cut trees near the path that could have fallen on people, but not burned trees away from the path.

The county would post notices to let the public know about the fire season closure of land away from the Greenway path, Benton said.

The closure of off-trail county land would likely displace some homeless people who are camping there. About 25 to 30 people have been identified camping in the areas that would close, Sickler said.

Medford City Council passed a camping ban along sections of the Greenway that pass through the city. The ban went into effect May 1. Highly visible efforts started this week to remove homeless campers after they were warned about the ban.

Jackson County is working with the city of Medford and organizations such as Rogue Retreat on shelter options such as the Urban Campground in Medford. Rogue Retreat hopes to double the size of the campground, which has 75 tents and tiny houses, but needs more funding.

Jackson County has contributed financially to the Urban Campground, and the Jackson County Jail prepares meals to help people living at the campground, county officials said.

Not everyone who is offered help and services through the Urban Campground and other local shelter options accepts that help, Sickler said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous