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John Thiry, accused of starting Oak Knoll fire, has died

The man accused of starting the Oak Knoll Fire, a 2010 blaze that destroyed 11 Ashland homes and led to the death of a firefighter, has died.

John Thiry, 47, a transient well known to Rogue Valley police, mental health workers and courts officials, was found by Ashland Fire & Rescue near the intersection of Ashland Street and Clover Lane at 3 p.m. Sunday, according to police and fire officials. They responded to the scene following a 911 call for a welfare check.

"He appeared to be very sick. What the circumstances are beyond that, I don’t know," said Ashland Police Chief Tighe O'Meara.

Responding paramedics transported Thiry to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, where he died. Additional details on the cause of his death were not immediately available.

"It certainly is unfortunate," O'Meara said.

The swift-moving Oak Knoll Fire started on the west side of Interstate 5 on Aug. 24, 2010. It jumped the freeway and rapidly spread through the Oak Knoll residential neighborhood in south Ashland, destroying the 11 homes and damaging three others.

Thiry was charged with 24 counts of reckless endangerment and reckless burning, accused of starting the fire after he flicked a lit cigarette into dried weeds and grass. In December 2010, a judge acquitted him on all counts, saying the state could not prove he was consciously aware of his actions and the potential consequences.

"I woke up and there was a fire down by my feet," Thiry was quoted as saying after the verdict.

Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Mark James Burns died in March 2016 after a long illness with lung damage he suffered while fighting the fire.

In the years following his acquittal, Thiry was cited multiple times by police for consuming alcohol and drugs in public, trespass and disorderly conduct, among others. Those include 2011 convictions for threatening and throwing rocks at two middle school girls on the Ashland bike path and throwing a traffic cone off the Ashland Street Bridge onto the freeway.

News of Thiry's death drew comments from social media posters who said society had failed Thiry, who struggled with mental health issues. 

Todd Kidd of Ashland said Thiry was a different person growing up. The two became friends in about first grade, Kidd said, and were close.

“He was actually a really bright person,” Kidd said.

He added that Thiry was passionate about dirt bike riding, water skiing and carpentry.

“He did a lot of nice carpentry around this town,” Kidd said.

The troubles began after Thiry “lost his inheritance” and began to chase work around the country, Kidd added. Thiry would return after the trips and live in his car.

“He just started to slowly go downhill,” Kidd said.

He added Thiry could get angry, but that he was polite and kind if you got on a “one-on-one level” with him. Kidd saw him a few months ago and told him he loved him. He believes Thiry slipped through the cracks and that no one reached out to help.

“Really what he needs is someone to help him,” Kidd said. “He didn’t have any help, and left to himself, look what happened.

“We’re all responsible for his death. We all turned a blind eye to him.”

— Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

John Thiry is shown after he was acquitted in 2010 of all charges in connection with the devastating Oak Knoll fire. [Mail Tribune file photo]