Forest-dwelling raises safety concerns
Last updated 4/19/2022 at Noon
On September 8, 2020, arsonists set a fire near the dog park in the city of Ashland in Southern Oregon, leading to the destruction of over 3,000 structures. Surprisingly Ashland was spared, as the fire, fueled by once-in-a-lifetime winds, raced westward along the Bear Creek Greenway bike path and wiped out half of the towns of Talent and Phoenix. The fire was abetted by a second arson fire in Phoenix which merged with the Almeda (Ashland) fire.
Three persons died in the fires. One arsonist was convicted and two suspects remain at large. A fourth pleaded guilty and is serving a four-year sentence for setting his car on fire a few miles southeast of Ashland on the same day and time as the Almeda fire.
A commonality of all four arsonists is that they lived intermittently in the woods surrounding Ashland.
Hiking through or driving by the Deschutes National Forest in Sisters is raising flags among citizens and trail users concerned about safety — especially the risk of fire. Residents raised concern about the potential for wildfire at a recent Forest Service open house (see story, page 10; Letters to the Editor, page 19).
On any given day, 40 to 50 campsites can be found in the surrounding woods, occupied not by weekend, recreational campers, but by long-term occupants.
The majority are homeless — or houseless as is the preferred term of social workers on the front lines working to identify people living in the woods. These workers are assessing the needs of the houseless, while offering what little aid and services there are.
A man who calls himself “Leroy” (not his real name, as he made clear) is living off FS Road 15 in what was once an RV. He told The Nugget, “I resent being called homeless. You probably live in Sisters, in a house. You’re a city dweller. My brother lives in a high-rise condo in Portland. He’s an apartment dweller. I live in the forest, so I’m a forest dweller.”
Some of the campsites are clean, well maintained, while others are strewn with trash or fecal matter. Most are tents, from one-person backpack models to others that are roomy enough for four. At least two of the tent campers have fortified their sites with tree limbs and brush
A number are RVs in varying degrees of repair. About half, self-drive, dot the terrain. A half dozen or so appear abandoned.
They are not deep in the woods. Most are within a half mile of town and a few are within yards of popular hiking trails like the Peterson Ridge system. Paved Forest Service Road 100 that connects North Pine Street to Highway 20 is a point of concentration with such campers, given its proximity to employment, dining, and shopping.
This is an area frequented by local hikers, bikers, and equestrians using the Indian Ford tie trail connector. It also backs up to some two-dozen homes on North Pine and North Forest Edge Drive. While residents there and others in Crossroads and Tollgate are offended by the amount of litter and sanitation issues created by some campers, it is fire that concerns them most.
There is also growing concern for safety, given an increase in confrontational encounters with some forest dwellers. One North Forest Edge resident, a regular on the trails, has taken to carrying pepper spray, a gift of her husband, who insists she carry it.
The Nugget sat down with Ian Reid, Sisters district ranger for the Deschutes National Forest, and Lieutenant Chad Davis, who heads the Deschutes County Sheriff’s office in Sisters. We discussed at length the perception of an increase of illegal camping in nearby woods and the inherent risk of wildfire.
Each agreed that there are more such campers. Each agreed that there is an increased number of incidents involving forest dwellers disrupting businesses in Sisters. Davis told of one person who had been trespassed more than a dozen times for unwelcome behavior in nearby stores, especially near Mainline Station and Ray’s. This is a favorite area of persons living in the woods, some of whom appear to have mental/emotional disorders, or are often impaired.
Reid quickly pointed out that not all campers in these areas are a problem or in violation of any Forest Service rules or regulations. Davis’ team serves primarily as backup for the Forest Service, who have their own armed law enforcement officers with arrest authority, and unarmed FPOs (forest protection officers), who can cite but not detain offenders.
Any camper is allowed to remain in the Forest for 14 days before being required to move at least five miles. Citizens think of this as a means to force forest dwellers out of neighboring woods. Reid noted that this rule was born out of making sure that recreational campers did not hog the best sites.
“The rule is not a tool to address the issue of homelessness,” he said.
Reid was told by one restauranteur that nine of their 11 employees live in the woods. There is the matter of compassion that Reid and Davis have to take into account with every contact, believing that heavy-handed enforcement is not the answer.
A trail user encountered by The Nugget less than a mile from town asked, “You’re not going that way, are you?” as she pointed to an intersecting trail. Turns out she was afraid to take that route after a prior encounter with a forest dweller who frightened her. Reid said that indeed he had been contacted about such an encounter in that area. He visited the area the next day and made contact with two sites, one of which was occupied and with whom he could engage the camper.
In next week’s issue The Nugget will report on actions being taken to lessen the threat risk from forest dwellers. Reid and Davis both said they want citizens to feel safe on public lands.