Ashland police and fire officials spent this morning searching the hills above Lithia Park for illegal campsites because they're concerned a stray spark from a campfire could cause a catastrophic blaze.
Every year for at least a decade authorities have spent a day each summer rounding up beer bottles, cigarette butts, furniture and trash littered around makeshift campsites and giving any campers they find a $250 citation, said Margueritte Hickman, division chief with Ashland Fire & Rescue.
But unlike in years past, as of 9:30 a.m. officials hadn't found any active campsites as they hiked through the thick brush pierced with pine trees. They started the search at 6 a.m.
It is illegal to camp in Ashland's watershed, the mountainous area above Lithia Park on the outskirts of the city.
"What we really want to do is prevent a fire in the watershed, which could be devastating to our community," Hickman said.
"This year we didn't find the camps that were active or that we had in the past, but I think this will still help out through the summer."
Transients could be wising up to the fact that officials do a sweep each year, they could have moved somewhere else or this year could just be a fluke, Hickman said.
Campers on city property were given 24-hours notice of the sweep, per city policy, said Officer Terri DeSilva with the Ashland Police Department.
About a dozen police, fire and U.S. Forest Service officials broke up into groups and combed acres of city land for evidence of campsites or party spots. One group found a long-abandoned campsite, strewn with blankets and beer bottles. Nearby were two stacks of unburned firewood which the authorities removed.
"You certainly get an idea of the fire potential," said Fire Chief John Karns, as he surveyed the hills from a vantage point near Hitt Road. "I think that clearing out the undergrowth has helped a lot, but there are still some areas of concern."
In the past, officials have received complaints from locals about their campsite sweeps, Hickman acknowledged.
"I think there are some concerns about this," she said. "We want people to find a place that they can live, but at the same time, we have to protect our own community."
If authorities come across campers, they can give them bus tokens and information about homeless shelters in Medford, she added. Any belongings, such as bedding or furniture, collected at campsites are held at the Ashland police station for at least two weeks, DeSilva said.
People do frequently camp above Lithia Park, said DeSilva, whose beat covers downtown and the park. Last week, the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department collected five large bags full of trash from a campsite in the hills, she said.
"This gives us an opportunity to go beyond our normal boundaries to see what's going on up there," she said this morning during the sweep.
Next week police will start patrolling the hills above Lithia Park, checking for illegal activity, such as camping, several times per week, said Sgt. Scott Schuster with the Ashland Police Department.
Eric Dukes, who was walking his dog this morning near a former campfire site, said he regularly sees people hanging out in the woods, close to his home off Strawberry Lane. The people seem to mainly be interested in partying — not camping, he said.
"It's partying, is what it is," he said. "They come up on Friday nights."
Enforcing the no-camping rule remains a challenge, said Chris Chambers, forest resource specialist with Ashland Fire & Rescue.
"I posted a sign up here last year that said 'No Campfires,' and I came back later and it was burned in a campfire," he said.
Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.