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Second death confirmed in Almeda fire

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Fire officials confirmed a second fatality and released new information about the Almeda fire’s unprecedented destruction through Phoenix and Talent, but it will likely be a while before residents can see the destruction for themselves.

The second death is not believed to be related to the death investigation where the fire started Tuesday in Ashland, according to Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara.

O’Meara said his agency is still looking into the possibility that more than one person’s remains were at the source of the fire, but it had logged only one death investigation as of Thursday afternoon.

Charred rubble defined the landscape Thursday from north Phoenix through Talent and along South Pacific Highway to south Medford. The state fire marshal’s office declined to provide even a rudimentary time frame for when it will be safe for residents to return to find out whether their home survived. Officials don't have a solid accounting of the damage yet, but they said at least 600 homes and 100 businesses were destroyed in the fire.

Oregon State Fire Marshal spokesman Rich Tyler said damage is extensive along the Bear Creek Greenway, and crews Thursday were still battling flare-ups in the wreckage, hazardous materials from businesses such as crop supply companies, and burning natural gas infrastructure. Plus some entirely new fire starts in the area.

According to Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler and Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon reports, an outbuilding caught fire shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday in the area of Pioneer and Dark Hollow roads.

Firefighters and police at the northern border of the evacuation rushed out of the barricades to pounce on the fire before it could spread.

The quick response and preventing “another big catastrophe” is “part of the reason we’re keeping this area locked down right now,” Sickler said.

Sickler said his agency is trying to help the public with police escorts to their homes to pick up items such as medical supplies, recover pets, or allow business owners to collect the contents of their cash register.

“We just need this area cleared, and we don’t want to have additional emergencies,” Sickler said.

Jackson County Fire District No. 3 Chief Bob Horton said state resources were largely tapped-out by the time the Almeda fire started, but local fire agencies are “really blessed with the ability to share resources and to collaborate amongst this community,”

“So much of the landscape here in the state of Oregon and the western region is on fire at the same time,” Horton said.

“We just can’t get the help that we normally would get in this situation from other communities ... so we’re left standing on our own two feet.”

Jackson County Fire District 5 chief Charles Hanley said the fire marshal’s office and fire defense board told him shortly after the Almeda fire began that it could provide “a single resource” such as a fire truck.

Horton said local firefighters, however, “stepped up tremendously” even before the Almeda fire began. Because of the red flag fire warning Tuesday, emergency calls were made for firefighters with Fire District 3, Medford Fire Department and Jackson County Fire District 5, among others.

“They answered that call and they have not stopped working,” Horton said.

Medford fire Chief Eric Thompson commended the partnerships and cooperation between local agencies.

“I have seen things over the last several days that I’ve never seen before in my career,” Thompson said.

The issues have only compounded as the Obenchain fire burning near Eagle Point continued its spread along the Upper Rogue.

On Thursday, Shady Cove, Butte Falls and the whole area between the towns was placed under a Level 3 “Go” evacuation alert and urged to leave immediately due to the fast-moving, erratic South Obenchain fire burning across northern Jackson County.

The “Go” evacuation zone stretched from the Shady Cove area to the Butte Falls area, north to Lost Creek Reservoir, and south to cover both sides of Highway 140.

The whole southern edge and most of the eastern side of the “Go” evacuation zone was bordered by a Level 2 “Be Set” evacuation zone.

The “Be Set” zone included areas north and east of Eagle Point.

For updates on evacuations in Jackson County, including evacuation maps, see jacksoncounty.org/evacuation.

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

Julian Cordle photoThe South Obenchain fire burns Wednesday night near Ball Road in Eagle Point.