A few hours before police say a transient accidentally set a fire that ripped through 11 houses on Oak Knoll Drive Tuesday, officers cited six people for illegally camping in Lithia Park, after noticing an increase in transient activity in the city, the police chief said.
Tuesday's fire has residents calling on officials to address the city's growing transient problem, but Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness said the department is already doing all it can with its limited resources.
"I'm not going to do anything differently because we're already dealing fairly aggressively with the camping situation and I don't have the resources to deal with it a lot more," he said Friday.
"We are aware of the issue and we constantly deal with this, especially in the fire season. There's no way to catch 100 percent of everything. It's not hard to find a camping spot in Ashland that's real tough to see."
Although detectives believe John David Thiry, a longtime homeless resident of Ashland, started Tuesday's fire, there is no indication he was camping in the field where the fire began, Holderness said.
"The fire had nothing to do with an illegal campsite," he said. "He normally stays under the freeway overpass. He had stopped in the field but he wasn't camping there."
Holderness said police believe Thiry may have been intoxicated and passed out when the fire began in the field.
Thiry remains in Jackson County Jail on $500,000 bail. He was arraigned Wednesday on 10 counts of reckless endangering and 14 counts of reckless burning.
The field where the fire started is outside the city limits, so police do not have authority to cite people for camping there, Holderness said. Ashland's city code has an ordinance against camping on city land, but camping on county or state property is not illegal, he said.
However, if police notice people breaking state laws, such as those against reckless burning, they can issue citations, he said.
The department has an officer who monitors illegal campsites in the city, Holderness said.
"We target areas that we think are most at risk for fire," he said.
The Oregon Department of Transportation works with Oregon State Police to cite people for camping underneath Interstate-5 bridges, such as the Exit 14 one where Thiry is said to have stayed, said Gary Leaming, spokesman for ODOT's Medford office.
Construction now underway at the overpass will result in a 30-degree slope underneath the bridge, to discourage camping, he said.
"There's going to be no flat area, no place for anyone to sit down and hang out, or sleep or build a fire," he said. "It's being built so as to make it unwelcoming unless you want to stand on a 30-percent slope."
Transients who are asked to leave an area, such as the Exit 14 overpass, often find another troublesome place to camp or return to the same spot a few days later, said Sgt. Tanya Henderson with Oregon State Police.
"If we go and ask them, they move on, but the problem is, they find another location," she said. "That's what happens. We go out and push them off the Greenway and then they come under the overpass."
There are few resources for transients in Ashland, Henderson said. Housing referrals for Ashland's homeless were handled by the Interfaith Care Community, but those services shut down in April 2008 because of a lack of funding.
"We don't have a great place to put people that are transients," Henderson said. "There's no place for these people to go, which is sad. There's the mission in Medford, but it's always full."
Ashland police are in the process of posting maps of nearby legal campsites, some of which are free, at the department and elsewhere in town, Holderness said.
"There are legal campgrounds, but one of the problems is, none are easy walking distance to the city of Ashland," he said.
Holderness said there's no way his department can eliminate illegal camping in the city.
"We are aware of the issue, but if every officer I have did full-time camp eradication, there would still be camps," he said.
Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.