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Ashland police seek two Almeda fire witnesses

Ashland police released this photo of two people walking near the spot where the Almeda fire began in Ashland. Police consider them potential witnesses and want to interview them.

Ashland police released a photo Friday in hopes of finding two possible witnesses who may have seen how the Almeda fire began.

The picture shows two people walking near Almeda Drive the morning of Sept. 8, according to Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara.

"The pic was taken pretty soon after the fire started,“ O’Meara said in an email.

The Sept. 8 fire was first reported at 11:04 a.m. at 164 Almeda Drive in Ashland, according to an incident timeline in the Jackson County Fire Incidents After-Action Report presented to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners on June 2 and a county video posted via YouTube.

Within 20 minutes the fire prompted evacuations on Glendower Street and Coventry Place before quickly spreading north through Phoenix and Talent and reaching the outskirts of Medford.

The fire took out roughly 2,800 homes and businesses, including entire neighborhoods, manufactured home parks and apartment buildings.

Anyone with information about the people in the photo were asked to call Ashland police at 541-488-2211.

O’Meara did not say who took the photo or how police obtained the image, but according to a November news report, the department publicly asked for photographs and video from the area of the Ashland Dog Park, BMX Park and surrounding areas either before or after the fire broke.

In November, the police department said it was working with a task force that included the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police and Medford police, and that the task force had “looked into hundreds of leads” and received numerous photos and videos.

Three people died in the Almeda fire. Two were residents of Bear Lake Mobile Estates in Phoenix, identified as 55-year-old Donald Schmidt and 92-year-old Violet Lobdell.

The identity of the third fatality is unknown, but earlier this week the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office released computer-generated images and descriptions of a man whose remains were found the day of the fire near the Bear Creek Greenway at mile marker 8.9 between the cities of Ashland and Talent.

The sheriff’s office described the victim as a Black male adult who was between 5-feet-8 and 5-feet-11. A pair of eyeglass frames and a multi-tool were found near the man’s body.

The Oregon State Police Medical Examiner’s office image was first posted June 6 on the “For The Missing: Pacific Northwest” Facebook page and shared 211 times, including once on the Jackson County Scanner Facebook group, which has close to 67,000 members.

The unidentified man’s death is being being treated as a homicide, according to earlier news reports, and Ashland police is the lead agency in the death investigation.

Anyone with information about the identity of the man fitting the composite description is asked to call the sheriff’s office at 541-774-6800.

In September, a man identified as Michael Jarrod Bakkela was arrested on felony charges of first-degree arson, first-degree criminal mischief, methamphetamine possession and misdemeanor reckless endangering on accusations that he set a fire in Phoenix that contributed to the Almeda fire.

Bakkela, 42, remains held in the Jackson County Jail on more than $5 million bail, records show, and a four-day trial in Jackson County Circuit Court is scheduled for Aug. 10.

Another individual charged with first-degree arson surrounding a fire the same day, Vance Phuc Nguyen, 46, is accused of intentionally setting fire to his vehicle near Emigrant Lake County Park south of Ashland the same day as the Almeda fire.

Court filings by Nguyen’s defense lawyer Michael Kellington indicate that Nguyen intends to seek an insanity defense. Court records show that in April a judge ordered Nguyen transferred from the jail to the Oregon State Hospital for psychiatric evaluation, and that he was brought back to the jail in May.

As of Friday, Nguyen remained held in jail without bail on an arson charge and for violating probation on a prior third-degree robbery conviction, records show.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.