You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Falling tree from storm takes life of Myrtle Creek man

Douglas County Clerk Patricia Hitt and her husband, Marshall Hitt, moved to a home east of Myrtle Creek surrounded by lots of trees five years ago. The two, who had been married since 1991, had plans of traveling and spending more time together when she retired.

That changed in an instant on a snowy Tuesday, Feb. 26, when a tree struck and killed Marshall — making him the only known storm-related death from last week’s snowstorm.

On top of heavy snow Sunday evening and Monday, a third wave of snow Tuesday proved too much for hundreds of trees around the county. The Hitt property in Myrtle Creek was no different, where trees were dropping like matchsticks.

On that snowy night, Patricia Hitt was at her nearby mother’s home with her sister, while Marshall Hitt, 70, remained at home. Once the power went out at her mother’s house, the decision was made to move everybody to a room reserved at Seven Feathers Casino Resort in Canyonville.

As they prepared to move to the hotel, Marshall Hitt was getting ready to cut away a tree that had fallen on their driveway.

Patricia Hitt walked home from her nearby mother’s house to gather some needed items to take with them to Canyonville.

“As we were walking back down the driveway, a tree fell between me and my sister right behind Marshall’s pickup, and before we got to my mom’s house, another tree fell across the driveway and into a power line,” Patricia Hitt said.

She described the scene where branches and trees were falling all around them and along the driveway. While Marshall Hitt worked to clear a fallen tree, the rest of the family headed for Seven Feathers.

“We had to drive 10 miles an hour, the roads were so bad,” she said. “I talked to Marshall until I got to Myrtle Creek and he’d gotten one tree off the road and got his pickup up to the house, so he was going to take a break and sharpen his chain on his chainsaw and then go back and cut up the other one.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last time she would ever speak with her husband.

When they got to Seven Feathers, hundreds of people were stranded and the freeway had just been closed. She described it as “utter chaos, and just crazy busy.”

As she, her mother, and sister Nancy Trueblood settled in at their room in Canyonville, Patricia Hitt thought she should check in back home.

“I tried to reach him and I sent a text that we made it, and then later that night, I thought, ‘I haven’t heard from Marshall, I better give him a call,’” she recalled. “I sent a text, but I decided he had no power, and the cell phone was probably dead, and he probably went to bed early, and I’ve tried to live my life not worrying about worst-case scenarios.”

The next morning, she got up and still had not received a call from her husband.

At the same time, her great nephew, who lives in Riddle, had gone to the Hitt home to help Marshall Hitt cut up the trees that had fallen. Upon his arrival, the great nephew made a tragic discovery.

They would later learn a tree behind Marshall Hitt uprooted and fell while he worked, hitting him. With the chainsaw running, he didn’t hear it falling.

“One minute he’s here and the next he’s in heaven,” Patricia Hitt said. “It happened so fast.”

A GoFundMe account was started to meet funeral expenses after the sudden and unexpected death of Marshall Hitt.

Shelter in a storm: Public safety chaplains aid storm victims

Several miles past Umpqua, along a winding country road, 72-year-old Jean Jennings lives alone in a home that hasn’t had running water or power since a week ago Sunday. Though the road was clear Tuesday, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground. The air was decidedly crisp when the Revs. Jerry Smart and Roger Horton stepped out of a small, gray pickup.

Tuesday was Smart’s birthday, but he and Horton were there to dispense gifts, not collect them. They were making sure the most isolated and most vulnerable of the county’s residents, people like Jennings, had what they needed to make it through the crisis caused by last week’s surprise snowstorm. The pastors had hauled with them about a third of a cord of wood, as much as Horton’s pickup could carry, along with some bottled water.

Smart and Horton are part of a group of public safety chaplains who assist first responders in crises like this one. The group formed after the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting.

Smart and his church, the Foursquare Gospel Center in Winston, responded quickly to this crisis. The church served as a shelter last week, and when the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office called and asked that the church double as a call center, they took on that challenge, too.

Public safety chaplains have made 80 visits over the past week and a half to people like Jennings.

Inside Jennings’s house, it was already pretty dark at a little before 5 p.m. Oil lamps provided a bit of light. On the wood stove were four pots of water and a teakettle. Music was playing on a battery-operated boombox. Music, Jennings said, is a survival need too.

When they first visited her a few days after the storm, Smart said they found Jennings out of firewood. To keep the wood stove burning, she had broken up furniture, starting with a pool table she’d planned to give away. When the furniture she was willing to part with ran out, she began collecting sticks off the ground, many as small as her finger. She filled her pots with snow she melted for drinking water.

For Jennings, whose partner Buck died of cancer four years ago, Tuesday’s company seemed almost as much a treat as the new supplies. As she spoke about her life, she poured her visitors non-alcoholic hot toddies so tasty they’d give hot chocolate a run for its money as the drink of choice for warding off the chill.

She spoke about her miniature horse, and said the entrance to his pen has been partially blocked by one of the trees that snapped like toothpicks and dropped to the ground during last week’s storm. The horse was a companion animal for Buck while he battled cancer. Jennings worried she was about down to her last bale of hay.

Jennings held out pictures of her parents, who were Russian and Polish. She was born in Germany and then taken to Chicago as a little girl, she said.

Jennings has lived in her current home for 33 years. She recalled the last time she faced a similar challenge was during a mudslide in 1996. At the time, she wound up caring for several neighbors in her home. This time, she was all alone.

Despite the challenges she had faced since the storm, she remained upbeat.

“I’m one of the lucky ones. I really am,” she said.

She was surprised to learn Smart had come on his birthday.

“I do not deserve this on your birthday,” she said. “No way Jose!”

“Of course you do,” Smart said.

At first, just three pastors who are part of the public safety chaplaincy were able to assist with the storm relief efforts. The rest were victims of the storm themselves, Smart said. By the time the call center opened, about eight chaplains and 20 other volunteers were available to help.

Horton, who is pastor of the LifeCare ministry in Roseburg, said he has been impressed by the volunteer response.

“It is a blessing just to watch,” he said.

Smart said the chaplains were happy to help ensure Jennings and other county residents were safe. He was also glad the Foursquare shelter was available when it was needed. And the calls that came into the church, about 100 of them, were calls the Sheriff’s Office didn’t have to worry about, so they could respond to the emergencies only they could handle, he said.

Smart said he and the other pastors will continue to do the work that’s needed to help keep people safe in the aftermath of the storm.

“We’re committed to doing this for the Sheriff’s Office until (Douglas County Emergency Manager) Wayne Stinson tells us to stand down,” he said.

Redistricting efforts for Douglas County Fire District No. 2 move closer to ballot

The Douglas County Fire District No. 2 board of directors have passed a pair of resolutions that will allow it to ask voters in the district if they want landowners not currently paying taxes for fire service to pay up.

The board voted unanimously to approve the resolutions at a meeting at the district’s Garden Valley station Wednesday night. The first resolution would allow the district to go forward with the process to dissolve the current district. The second would allow the board to ask voters, to include all properties within the existing fire district boundaries on the tax roles so they would be assessed to help pay for the fire district services, including those landowners who have refused to pay.

If the measures get to the ballot, both would have to pass for them to go into effect.

“We’re not changing the boundaries of the district, there are just a lot of properties within the boundaries that are not subject to taxation for the fire district, and we still provide coverage when we’re called out,” said Rich Raynor, the board chair.

Board members say some owners are taking advantage of the service without having to pay for it, and it's a tax fairness issue. They say it's not right that some properties pay for others who don't pay for emergency services, but can still call 9-1-1 to get service. The ballot measures would allow for assessment at the same rate for all property owners in the district.

“We can’t pick and choose,” said Fire Chief Rob Bullock. “It would be difficult for us to say we’re not going to respond to those who are not paying.”

Bullock said there are actually people across from fire stations that are not paying, but he said they have still been able to get the better insurance rating, even though they’re not a member of the fire district, but are within the boundaries of the district.

“They’re getting the benefit of the insurance rate because our ISO rating is a 3,” Bullock told The News-Review in July.

The Insurance Service Office rates a community’s ability to handle fires, with 1 being the best and 10 being the worst. Many insurers factor in the rating when calculating home insurance premiums. So while the owners of these expensive houses don’t chip in for the fire service, they directly benefit from it being there.

Nearly a dozen of the properties not currently paying for fire service have total assessed values of more than $700,000 each and are located in wealthy neighborhoods on Fisher Road, Hayes Eden Lane and Cross Creek Drive. Some of the properties are worth more than one million dollars.

The next step is to present the resolutions to the Douglas County Commissioners and after that, the board will get petitions ready. The district will have to gather about 4,000 signatures to get the redistricting efforts placed on the ballot.

“We’re looking to get it on the November ballot,” Bullock said. “That would mean it would go onto the following year’s tax roll if it passes.”

District officials said they are in desperate need of finding more operating revenue and are at a critical point.

“I just know if we don’t do this, in a year-and-a-half we’re looking at closing a station,” Bullock said.

Douglas County Fire District No. 2 serves about 36,000 people with stations in Dixonville, Green, Melrose, Umpqua, Winchester Garden Valley and Calapooia, west of Sutherlin.

Former Douglas County Sheriff Norm Neal dies

Former Douglas County Sheriff Norm Neal passed away Wednesday after an extended illness at the age of 83.

Neal served two terms as sheriff from 1981 to 1989 and continued to be active in assisting the sheriff's office in search and rescue missions until just a couple of years ago. 

Neal began his career in law enforcement with the Roseburg Police Department at age 21 and as a rural volunteer fire fighter. He was one of the first responders to the Roseburg Blast of 1959. 

Neal became a deputy in the Douglas County Sheriff's Office in 1963. His service in law enforcement and search and rescue spanned 52 years. 

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin said Neal was a respected and dedicated servant of the community.

"His service was one one of honor and substantial impact on the safety of our entire county," Hanlin said.

Hanlin joined the sheriff's office shortly after Neal retired. He said Neal was instrumental in establishing the local Douglas County Search and Rescue program.

Hanlin said Neal established the first real recognized volunteer program by putting together a group of people with four-wheel drives. He got a lot of youth involved and provided training and organization in the program.

"He was always available and wanting to help anytime there was a natural disaster or search and rescue mission to be carried out," Hanlin said. "He'll be greatly missed."

Neal was also the first sheriff in the county to successfully pass a public safety levy to fund the public safety services during the county's financial shortfalls in the 1980s.

A date for a celebration of life has not been set yet, but it is expected to be held later this spring when the weather improves.