Fire in hills started at transient camp

The fire that branded the hills just north of Ashland on Monday started at a transient campsite, an Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman said.

Investigators are still trying to determine how the blaze was started, Brian Ballou, fire prevention specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said Wednesday afternoon.

"It could have been a cigarette, a match, spilled gas, a campfire they shouldn't have been having, a stove. We're looking at all possibilities to try and determine the precise cause."

Officials are following up on a few leads they have about who may have been camping at the site, Ballou said. No one was at the site when fire officials first arrived on the scene shortly before noon on Monday, he said.

If caught, the person or people responsible for the fire would be cited and could be fined for the cost of fighting the fire — which Ballou estimated will be between $30,000 and $40,000.

The fire outraged some nearby residents who suspect illegal campers accidentally ignited the bone-dry brush — putting homes and Ashland's Watershed at risk.

"No surprise," said Gerry Lehrburger, owner of the Jackson Wellsprings, which is in the shadow of the hillside where the fire began. "No surprise at all. The hillsides are dry and we have campers up there. It's the perfect storm."

At the time of the blaze, which occurred on private property, Lehrburger said there were likely as many as 12 illegal campsites in the hills.

"The homeless population is filling the hillside," he said. "This kind of thing could happen any year."

Lehrburger, an emergency room physician at Ashland Community Hospital, said he thinks city and county officials should address Ashland's homeless problem and provide transients with a safe place to sleep.

"We need a place to protect society from homeless people camping in the wild where there is extreme fire danger," he said.

City Councilor Carol Voisin, who lives near where the fire occurred, said she plans to take up the matter soon and that the city's Housing Commission is also scheduled to address homelessness.

"I think the city of Ashland needs to face the fact that we have homeless and that they're a part of our community, even through they're silent and have no voice," she said.

At the start of fire season each year, city officials comb the hills above Lithia Park for illegal campsites, citing campers and requiring them to move.

The hills where the fire started on Monday are just outside the city limits and on private property, so residents and landowners must monitor the ground themselves, a tough task in the steep, tree-studded terrain.

Oregon Department of Forestry firefighters will continue checking for hot spots on the mountainside this week. The fire will likely be declared "out" this weekend or early next week, after there is no visible smoke and the area has been checked three times for additional flares, Ballou said.

Meanwhile, nearby residents are hoping the fire draws attention to the problem of campers in the hills.

"We've been asking people to please leave for years," said Dave Orchid, who used to work at the Wellsprings and now lives a few miles away. "We tell them, 'You've got to move. The fire danger's too high — for you and us.'"

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or

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