The Oak Knoll fire has intensified some local residents' concerns about a proposed rest area and welcome center south of Exit 14 outside Ashland.
Some Oak Knoll neighborhood residents long have been worried that transients could be attracted to the Oregon Department of Transportation's planned rest area. They fear transients will camp in the area and start fires that could spread to their homes. Neighbors are also worried about criminal activity as well as noise.
On Aug. 24, a fire allegedly started by John David Thiry, a homeless man, burned a field along Washington Street before jumping across Interstate 5. The fire then destroyed 11 Oak Knoll Drive houses and damaged three other homes.
Rest area opponent and Oak Knoll neighborhood resident Allen Baker, whose home was not burned by the fire, said a blaze coming from the proposed rest area would be even harder to fight than the Oak Knoll fire. The rest area would be farther from Ashland, in a more isolated and hard-to-reach area, he said.
"There is little decent access," Baker said.
If a fire occurred at the rest area, it would be outside Ashland city limits and would fall under the jurisdiction of Jackson County Fire District No. 5. However, both District 5 and Ashland Fire & Rescue would be available to fight the fire under mutual aid agreements, ODOT Project Manager Tim Fletcher said.
The rest area also would be served by a new gated access road that could be opened by people working at the rest area and welcome center, as well as by emergency responders, he said.
"Fire trucks could respond much easier and faster than they can today," Fletcher said.
ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming acknowledged that the state agency does struggle with the issue of transients at rest areas. ODOT can ask people who panhandle aggressively to leave, but those people can come back or move on to other rest areas, he said.
Fletcher said the area proposed for the project already is occasionally used by transients who camp there.
"Having that area as a rest area, we will actually be able to enforce that from happening," Fletcher said, noting that plans include desk space for Oregon State Police who can drop in when they are patrolling the south side of the Rogue Valley.
In 2009, Jackson County commissioners approved the welcome center and rest area with the caveat that the city of Ashland must agree to provide city water and sewer services.
The county approval was appealed, and the rest area and welcome center's fate now rests with the Oregon Court of Appeals.
A court decision is expected at the end of November, Fletcher said.
Ashland City Administrator Martha Bennett said the City Council in 1997 approved providing water and sewer to an earlier version of the plan, but the current council has yet to approve those services.
The issue will go before the Ashland City Council only if the Court of Appeals rules the project can move forward, Bennett said.
"There's no reason to make a decision while litigation is ongoing," she said.
Business and tourism supporters have worked to get a new rest area and welcome center built ever since one that was higher up on the Siskiyou Pass was closed in 1996 following vehicle accidents.
The state has a temporary welcome center near Ashland's Exit 19, but visitor numbers there are low, state officials said.
If a new facility is built, ODOT would be responsible for funding the rest area portion while the welcome center would be funded through state tourism dollars.
ODOT already added rest rooms at the Port of Entry used by semi-trucks between Exits 14 and 19 so that trucks won't enter the proposed rest area and welcome center, Fletcher said.
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.