On the day the Juniper Ridge Fire first began, Pati Gaskins got nonstop phone calls.
The 39-acre wildfire on Aug. 15 forced hundreds of homeowners in northeast Bend to evacuate. Gaskins, the outreach coordinator for the Bend Treatment Center, fielded calls from homeless campers who live on the north end of Juniper Ridge, a 1,500-acre city-owned, largely undeveloped piece of property in northeast Bend.
Many asked her the same question: What should they do?
That night, Gaskins worked with other homeless service providers and volunteers to coordinate rides to an emergency shelter for the homeless campers who did choose to get out of Juniper Ridge.
The fire, which, according to fire officials, was sparked by a motor home, was quickly contained. None of the people living on Juniper Ridge reported injuries, and only a handful of tents were reported to be damaged and were replaced, according to the homeless nonprofit Central Oregon Veterans Outreach, known as COVO.
But the fire begs new questions for homeless services providers: What if homeless campers weren’t as lucky next time? What if the fire moved closer, or volunteers weren’t able to come transport people for evacuation?
Now providers want local government officials to create a more formal evacuation plan for homeless camps, including clear routes out of the sprawling, rugged scrubland and coordinated transportation, as many homeless residents don’t have working vehicles.
“We need to take care of this community as well as the neighborhoods,” said J.W. Terry, the executive director of COVO. “We want that community to feel as safe.”
Ever since a small fire ignited on the property last summer, creating a land management policy for Juniper Ridge has become a priority with the city of Bend.
But so far, there is no explicit evacuation plan for homeless camps in the area, which these days contains between 150 and 200 people. The number of people living in this area has grown in recent months, in large part because many were forced to move out of the way of the city’s sewer-line construction project that is happening in the southwest corner of the property.
“We are in the process of developing a plan,” said Jaime Gomez-Beltran, property manager for the city of Bend.
Around once a week, Gomez-Beltran or other city staff members passing through the Juniper Ridge property take note of where homeless campers have set up shelters among the juniper trees and sagebrush.
Then, city officials compile that information into a mapping software. The result is a detailed map, with the relative locations of campsites, trails, vehicles and piles of waste that have been removed by city crews.
The map, Gomez-Beltran said, is a key piece of the city’s emergency planning in the area. It gets regularly shared with law enforcement and fire officials, who can use the information to access camps in case of emergencies.
It also means that officials generally know where people are living on Juniper Ridge, around how many people are living there, and how frequently they move on the property.
“We have human lives out there that really are exposed,” Gomez-Beltran said. “I think that collectively there is a concern.”
One challenge in the area, according to Lt. William Bailey, a spokesperson for the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, is how fluid the situation is. People can move from day to day, making it difficult for deputies to know exactly where people are, he said.
The sheriff’s office is the agency responsible for establishing evacuation orders in response to fires and other natural disasters. The night of the Juniper Ridge Fire, the sheriff’s office did issue evacuation notices to homeless people, said Deschutes County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jayson Janes, but he could not provide how many.
When there’s a fire in the area, Bailey said deputies will walk onto the property to make sure people living there are evacuating safely.
But the sheriff’s office doesn’t own the property — meaning it has to defer to the city in order to modify access points to the area. While Bailey said there have been discussions about adding an access point off Deschutes Market Road, the area is filled with other agencies that have a stake in who lives there, from the Central Oregon Irrigation District to the BNSF railway.
“There’s ongoing discussions,” Bailey said. “I would say we’ve been proactive about it.”
The city isn’t currently considering developing any additional access points to the property, according to Gomez-Beltran. Emergency vehicles and service providers have to continue using the ones that already exist if they want to access the property.
But the roads that exist are hard to navigate and primitive, often requiring vehicles with four-wheel drive, according to service providers. Many homeless residents don’t have cars, and if they do, they don’t work, said Gaskins, of Bend Treatment Center.
Overall, whatever plan is made should be as equal as one made for an established neighborhood, Gaskins said.
“That’s their home, and that’s where they live,” Gaskins said.