Man charged with arson in Almeda fire
A man has been arrested and charged with arson for setting a fire in Phoenix that contributed to the spread of what’s now being called the Almeda fire complex.
Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 41, faces two counts of first-degree arson for allegedly lighting a fire Tuesday in the area of Quail Lane and Barnum Drive that damaged 15 properties, threatened the lives of 14 people in nearby neighborhoods and contributed to the Almeda fire that ravaged the town, according to Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler.
Police said the Almeda fire had two points of origin, one in Ashland and the other in Phoenix. Bakkela, described by police as a transient, has not been accused of involvement in the Ashland fire.
A criminal investigation and death investigation are underway in Ashland, where the Almeda fire started shortly after 11 a.m. Tuesday, Sickler said Friday at a press conference. A body was found about a mile north of where the fire started on Almeda Drive.
An autopsy confirmed that the male victim — who has not been identified — died in the Ashland fire.
At 5:09 p.m. Tuesday, residents in the 1100 block of Quail Lane called 911 to report that a man, later identified as Bakkela, was lighting a fire near the railroad tracks behind their home.
“Witnesses reported what they thought was suspicious behavior,” Sickler said. “Our deputy located an individual within minutes and took him into custody.”
According to the preliminary investigation, JCSO detectives believe Bakkela drove into a gated area, “parked a vehicle on a very grassy area, started a fire, and then fled north” before he was apprehended.
Bakkela was booked Tuesday in the Jackson County Jail for violating his probation on a methamphetamine possession conviction, and he has been held in jail ever since, records show. Bakkela will be booked on the two arson charges along with 15 counts of first-degree criminal mischief and 14 counts of recklessly endangering another person.
More charges may be added as the investigation continues, according to Sickler.
The arson charges took several days because his staff needed time “to investigate the case,” Sickler said. Witnesses in the neighborhood had to evacuate before they could be questioned Tuesday evening as the fire spread rapidly through dry and windy conditions.
Court records show Bakkela has numerous prior felony convictions since 2005, primarily related to methamphetamine possession. Mail Tribune archives show that Talent police arrested Bakkela in January 2013 surrounding an attempted burglary into an occupied home in a 55-and-older community. His most recent felony conviction was in September after Oregon State Police found him in possession of methamphetamine while in a disabled vehicle on southbound Interstate 5 near the Medford viaduct.
On Friday, Sickler separately downgraded Level 3 “Go” evacuations in all areas except those directly affected by fire.
“We’re going to be allowing many people to return to their residence,” Sickler said. “This is great news.”
According to Chief Scott Majors, who is leading the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s incident management teams on the Almeda fire, it’s not yet safe for residents to return to the fire zone.
“From a firefighting perspective it is not a safe environment,” Majors said, describing a litany of hazards in the area such as trees, power lines and fire hazards.
“Until I feel comfortable that ... the public will be safe, it will not get my seal of approval,” Majors said.
Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer, who spoke at Friday’s press conference, said he toured the devastation in Phoenix and Talent Friday, calling the wreckage “devastating and heartbreaking.”
“I saw a lot of extremely tired and exhausted people there, but none of them want to go home — none of them want to go anywhere until this job is done,” Dyer said of first responders.
Saying he’s received “dozens” of calls and email requests from residents wanting to get back into their homes, Dyer asked residents for patience.
“The last thing we want or need is any more injuries, any more devastation of any kind,” Dyer said.