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Dry April could mean early start to Douglas County fire season

Fire agencies throughout Douglas County, including the Douglas Forest Protective Association, have been busy for the past week putting out brush fires that were blown out of control.

Nearly a dozen fires from Azalea to Drain required crews to be dispatched last week as private residential debris burns were blown out of control by moderate winds and high temperatures.

After an abnormally dry March and — so far — a bone-dry April, Douglas County could find itself in fire season far sooner than normal.

“Our fire season typically starts in the middle of June, around June 12,” spokesperson Kyle Reed said. “But driving around, you can already see some of the rock outcroppings changing color early. Without a significant change, we could see an earlier than normal start.”

Douglas County saw just 1.65 inches of rain in March. Through Tuesday, the traditional April showers have yielded just 0.02 inches.

“We aren’t seeing conditions like we’re going to see in the middle of summer, but it has definitely been dryer than typical for April,” Reed said.

While the region isn’t expected to see a wildfire of the size and scope of last fall’s Archie Creek Fire, the continued dry conditions do not bode well for a region already in a moderate drought.

“People are already getting nervous,” Reed said. “We receive multiple calls a day for what people think are escaped burns. We’re definitely monitoring those calls as they come in, but every one isn’t going to be a critical emergency.”

Rain is forecast for central Douglas County beginning Saturday, but it is unknown how much moisture the approaching weather system will bring.

Reed said the most important thing for those who have debris piles they want to burn off is to make a sensible choice in regard to the current weather conditions. He also reminds people who have already done a burn to check continue to monitor their piles.

“We haven’t gone to a burn ban yet,” Reed said. “We’re just asking people to consider whether they need to burn or not.”

Local agencies are also keeping an eye on the Archie Creek burn scar, monitoring for “smokers,” burnt trees which have continued to smolder through the winter. As temperatures increase, such as they have over the past 10 days, some of the heat in those trees will intensify.

“Smokers” don’t necessarily present a threat, especially in areas of the fire that burned extremely hot. However, in the area of a “dirty” burn, where not all vegetation was consumed, the potential remains for a “smoker” to ignite surrounding fuels.

The permitted backyard burn season within Roseburg city limits began April 15, but the Roseburg Fire Department is urging those who have already secured burn permits to hold off until weather conditions improve.

For questions about debris burning, contact the Douglas Forest Protective Association at 541-672-6507 or the Roseburg Fire Department at 541-492-6770.

Oregon House passes bill extending homeless camp notice
The Oregon House on Monday approved a bill that would extend the notice period to homeless individuals before local government agency’s remove an encampment from 24 hours to 72 hours

The Oregon House on Monday approved a bill that would extend the notice period to homeless individuals before local government agencies remove an encampment from 24 hours to 72 hours.

In addition, the measure would increase the time a municipality would be required to store unclaimed personal property removed from a site from 30 days to 90 days.

House Bill 3124 passed by a vote of 39-16 and now moves to the Senate.

Rep. John Lively, a Springfield Democrat, said while lawmakers are working on various bills relating to housing and homelessness this session, this particular piece of legislation “addresses some other aspects of how (homeless people) are treated.”

People who are currently or were previously homeless wrote the Legislature to support the bill.

“There is absolutely no good reason to perform camp sweeps without proper notice. Performing a sweep effectively evicts people from their homes. Personal belongings are often confiscated and thrown away,” Juniper Harwood, an Oregon resident who was homeless for three years, said in written testimony. “Would you want to be evicted on such short notice?”

Heather Sielicki, a Eugene Human Rights commissioner who works with the homeless population in the area, said extending the notice would also allow non-profits and other organizations more time to gather and provide services to the vulnerable population.

“Twenty-four hour notice does not give resource-limited community-based organizations sufficient time to render aid,” Sielicki wrote. “Twenty-four hour notice does not acknowledge the lack of support available on a weekend, even in our larger municipalities”

If the bill ultimatley passes, a 72-hour notice would be posted on the entrances of the encampment and local agencies that deliver social services to individuals, including arranging shelter, would be notified.

During the camp removal, all unclaimed personal property — except for belongings in unsanitary conditions, weapons, drug paraphernalia and items that appear to be either stolen or evidence of a crime — would be stored by the municipality for 90 days for the owners to reclaim.

However, some argued that the extensions would be challenging, unnecessary and not feasible.

Among them was Lucas Hillier, the program manager for the City of Portland Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program. For the past six years, the program has been responsible for coordinating the cleanup of campsites in Portland.

Hillier said in written testimony that currently the program gives a 48-hour notice.

“We have found that to be a good balance to provide individuals enough advance notice while at the same time still allowing us to be responsive when necessary,” Hillier said.

Hillier along with Republican Rep. Kim Wallan raised concerns that the extended 72-hour notice could create challenges in intervening earlier in “severe” circumstances.

Under the proposed bill, a 72-hour notice would not be required when there are illegal activities at the site, possible contamination by hazardous materials or when there is immediate danger to human life or safety.

Hillier said in addition, holding property for an additional two months may not be feasible.

“In the overwhelming majority of instances, people collect their belongings within days of the cleanup,” Hillier said. “The City would need to triple the capacity of our current 5,500 (square foot) storage facility at a significant cost.”

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Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues

Jo Lane Middle School continues robotics program amid pandemic, gets donation from Masonic Lodge

Jo Lane Middle School teacher Steve Kiepert was determined to keep the robotics club going this year, even though the school year began with distance learning.

“My son grew up in robotics and I saw what it did for him, so it’s kind of a passion for me,” Kiepert said. “I really want to keep the robotics program up and running. And the kids, they’re amazing. I don’t have to tell them to do anything, they just get in the class and get right to work. They’re busy and super engaged.”

The school offers two different robotics levels: Lego robotics and First Tech Challenge robotics. Jeff Plummer, a retired Roseburg teacher and administrator, leads the Lego teams while Kiepert guides the FTC teams.

On Saturday morning, seventh grader Samantha Senajon helped her First Tech Challenge team work to construct a robot that could pick up a ring and shoot it into a goal.

Samantha joined the robotics team this year and said it’s been a lot of fun.

When her team’s designer left the robotics club a few weeks into the school year, she decided to step up and learn how to use a computer-aided design program.

“I was really confused the first couple of weeks,” Samantha said. But on Saturday, she fully designed the team’s robot and was able to make changes when asked to do so by her teammates.

During a break, the Roseburg Laurel Masonic Lodge donated $1,000 to the robotics club. It is the third time such a donation has been made to the school, and one year the Masonic Lodge helped build storage cabinets for parts.

“They’ve been an incredible support to us,” Kiepert said, adding it was especially appreciated this year as the normal funding stream was significantly less than previous years.

Plummer said there has been an increased interest in the program as elementary schools have added robotics programs.

Ryan Boyer, a sixth grader, used to attend Hucrest Elementary School and was eager to join the team when he started middle school in the fall. He’s even more excited to get the opportunity to work with First Tech Challenge robotics next year.

“It looks fun and really confusing too,” Ryan said.

When asked what his favorite part of creating the robots was, he answered, “It’s fun to test if they work or not.” He added that he learns most when they don’t work.

The school also offers a robotics class. Superintendent Jared Cordon said Monday that the school district plans to expand its science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics offerings — including opportunities at all schools to learn about robotics.