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Death investigation underway where Almeda fire started

A criminal investigation is underway at the origin point of the Almeda fire in Ashland, where human remains were found, Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler said Wednesday.

The Jackson County Major Assault and Death Investigation Unit is at the early stages of an “active criminal investigation,” Sickler said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

“We are still in the early stages,” Sickler said. “Nothing’s been ruled out — it’s still an active investigation.”

It may not be the only fatality, according to Sickler.

The fire started at 11:04 a.m. Tuesday during a red flag fire weather warning and started spreading “at an extreme rate,” Sickler said.

The sheriff’s office and officers from partner law enforcement agencies worked to evacuate seniors, people with medical disabilities and those without vehicles in what Sickler described as a “very chaotic and a very busy scene.”

Some people refused to evacuate.

“We had people refuse to leave their homes,” Sickler said. “We don’t know what their status is because we had to move on.”

Sickler said he and his staff are “hurting for our community right now,” describing a path of destruction that ravaged Talent and Phoenix and threatened parts of Medford Tuesday night.

“This is an event that is larger than anything I’ve been a part of with regards to the loss of property and the destruction to the community,” Sickler said.

Sickler said that even though fire officials had made good progress on the Almeda fire, it was “still active in many places,” and having people in the area could interfere with the ability of firefighters to drop water and retardant in the area.

Few details were released about the Ashland, Talent and Phoenix neighborhoods and businesses destroyed during the fire or numbers of structures destroyed; however, Oregon State Fire Marshal spokesman Rich Tyler described the path of destruction as extensive.

“This fire did not go through and leave partially burned anything,” Tyler said.

As of Wednesday evening, the Almeda fire had burned close to 3,000 acres, but Tyler said the estimate may not be accurate because their highest priority was “putting this fire out.”

An Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office incident command team took over the Almeda fire and the Obenchain fire near Eagle Point shortly after 2 a.m. Wednesday, according to Chief Scott Majors, who is leading the team. Majors said two more task forces — from Lakeview and Union counties — were en route Wednesday and were expected to begin working the fires before dawn Thursday.

Evacuation warnings in Medford were downgraded to Level 1 “Be Ready” for the area north of Stewart Avenue and Barnett Road, but at about the same time crews got Almeda fire under control, the Obenchain fire had spread into Trail and Shady Cove, prompting an evacuation for the entire town of Shady Cove.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Obenchain had grown to 25,000 acres with zero containment.

The press conference was terminated Wednesday afternoon when another fire started on Table Rock Road near Interstate 5, prompting more highway closures and Level 3 “Go” evacuations for all of Central Point.

The Table Rock Road fire was reported about 3:14 p.m. Wednesday as a small fire underneath the I-5 overpass, according to a Facebook post on the Central Point Police Department’s official Facebook page.

By 5:14 p.m., portions of Central Point west of Highway 99 and between Beall Road and Scenic Avenue were downgraded to Level 2 “Get Set,” but other portions of Central Point remained at Level 3 “Go” while crews battled a fire behind the Pilot Travel Center close to Costco.

The fire burned along the Bear Creek Greenway and closed I-5 between Exit 33 and Exit 30 as multiple air tankers and helicopters dropped fire retardant and water in the area, according to a Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Facebook post at 5:19 p.m.

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

file photoThe Almeda fire burns Tuesday in Jackson County.