ASHLAND — Police believe a fire that scorched businesses early Monday on the Plaza and sent residents clambering over rooftops for safety was deliberately set by a homeless man during a vandalism spree.
Ashland police said witness accounts and surveillance footage led them to Raymond Lee Wilson, 37, who was arrested on charges of theft, burglary and criminal mischief. Arson and reckless endangering charges were added later Monday when investigators tied the fire to Wilson, police said.
Wilson remained in the Jackson County Jail late Monday on $1.1 million bail.
The fire was spotted at about 2:50 a.m. by a passing police officer who saw flames licking up a stairwell between Gold & Gems and the storefront that previously housed American Trails, Ashland Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Dave Shepherd said.
Police helped the residents of two upstairs apartments escape the flames by climbing out back windows and crossing rooftops to reach the back deck of Alex's Plaza Restaurant.
About 30 seconds into firefighters' knockdown efforts, a draft of superheated smoke — referred to as a backdraft or smoke explosion — erupted from the stairway, tearing through the American Trails awning and a small portion of Gold & Gems' awning. No one was injured, Shepherd said.
The fire was contained in about 10 minutes, said Chris Chambers, public information officer for Ashland Fire & Rescue.
Investigators believe the fire originated in or near the stairwell, which leads to the Ashland Painters Union gallery and apartments that sit above the vacant store and Hana Sushi, Chambers said.
The vacant store and a portion of the APU gallery directly above it are "closed to access," said Chambers, because support beams in the floor of the gallery were burned in the fire.
Repairs for making the building safe to occupy may take months to complete, said Eric Navickas, who is a member of the APU artist collective that rents the space.
"I think who is liable here is the City of Ashland for not addressing the homeless problem," Navickas said. "It's the type of situation that we're inevitably going to have if we don't have a shelter or proper services."
Hana Sushi also will be closed for an undetermined amount of time, said William Barchet, an owner. The sushi restaurant suffered considerable smoke damage, Chambers said.
Gold & Gems suffered smoke damage but may be able to reopen this week after some cleaning up, said owner Ron Hansen.
"It smells absolutely toxic in here," Hansen said.
He said both his Ashland and Medford locations likely will hold a sale to make up some of the costs of replacing carpet and cleaning linens damaged by smoke. He may also have to repaint, he said.
"I hate to complain, because I'm really lucky. It could have been a huge, huge disaster," he said. "I just want to give a big thanks to the Ashland and Medford fire crews. They did one heck of a job."
Five fire engines and 18 firefighters from Ashland Fire & Rescue, Jackson County Fire District No. 5 and Medford Fire-Rescue battled the blaze, said Chambers.
Hong Kong Bar also will be closed for an undetermined amount of time because of the fire, said Manager Mel Bradley. The stairwell where the fire may have originated was the bar's fire escape, she said, and until it's refurbished, the bar will remain closed.
"It might take weeks if they run into problems," she said.
Bradley said Hong Kong will have to replace its linens and clean the upholstery in the bar, which were damaged by smoke.
Thread Hysteria next to Gold & Gems had a subtle, lingering smell of smoke, but was open for business after the fire.
Police suspect Wilson broke two windows and slashed the tires of a truck parked at Evo's Coffee Lounge shortly after the fire.
"I was sleeping in the front seat," said Daniel Goines, who lives in the truck. He said he called police when a man started smashing its windows with a rock.
"He threatened to kill me," said Goines, "He was a madman."
Two other members of the homeless community, who did not want to be named, said Wilson is mentally ill and that someone over the weekend had stolen his backpack with his medication.
"Seems like he was nothing but trouble," said Rick Medina, a homeless man living in Ashland and Medford, who agreed that Wilson was mentally unstable, but hadn't heard about his stolen backpack and medication.
He said Wilson showed up in Ashland about three weeks ago.
As police were speaking with Goines at about 3:30 a.m., they received a report of an alarm at the Stop and Shop Market at 110 Lithia Way. Someone had broken the store's glass door with a rock, then stolen energy drinks, tobacco products and glass pipes, which police said they later found on Wilson during his arrest.
Wilson also allegedly threw a rock through the window of nearby Café 116, which had cardboard taped over the broken window Monday but was open.
Chelsey Taormina, a clerk at Stop and Shop Market, said workers at the corner store frequently had problems with Wilson.
One worker had to kick Wilson out of the store last weekend, she said, because Wilson threw a fit when they refused to allow him to fill a 44-ounce cup with coffee.
Wilson is being held on charges of first-degree arson and criminal mischief, second-degree burglary and theft, two counts of second-degree criminal mischief, menacing and three counts of reckless endangering.
Sam Wheeler is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 541-499-1470 or email email@example.com.