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Almeda fire death toll rises to 4; one person still missing

Law enforcement officials confirmed new deaths in the wreckage of the Almeda fire complex — bringing the official death toll to four — but that number could change.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office confirmed two deaths Saturday, and said one person was still missing, according to a press release issued late Saturday night. Earlier in the day, Sheriff Nathan Sickler said at a press conference that his staff had recovered five sets of remains; however, forensic investigators later determined one set of remains were not human.

Names of those who died — or the last missing person — were not made available immediately because investigators had only found the remains within the last 24 hours and had not had time to notify next of kin.

Owing to cool temperatures that gave firefighters the upper hand overnight Friday, Sickler said he reduced evacuations in the Almeda fire area “just about as far as we feel comfortable doing so at this time,” excluding areas affected by the fire “because of the ongoing hazards, hot spots utility crews and all of the things going on within that zone.”

“Those levels are not gonna change for some time,” Sickler said.

Sickler said he didn’t have a timeline for residents whose homes may be intact, but in zones affected by fire other than, “weeks or potentially months of not things being as we would hope.”

His staff and partner law enforcement agencies are escorting evacuated Almeda fire residents into the affected area to briefly gather important belongings, but otherwise closing the area in an effort to protect against looters and other unauthorized people in the massive fire area. Any resident seeking to schedule a police escort into the area should call 541-613-5194.

Sickler said his staff made more than half a dozen arrests for looting Wednesday and Thursday, but no new arrests in the Almeda fire area in the past two days.

“Our staff has done a great job of monitoring that and keeping things safe,” Sickler said, adding that he hoped to release more information about looting arrests in the coming days.

Because of changing winds, the sheriff hasn’t lifted evacuations in the Shady Cove and Butte Falls areas.

Sickler said he wants to be “absolutely sure” residences are safe to return to before he reduces any evacuation levels where the South Obenchain fire is burning in the upper Rogue region.

Fire officials, meanwhile, were bracing for a mixed bag of weather conditions Sunday that could threaten fragile fire lines — particularly in the South Obenchain burn zone.

The National Weather Service in Medford issued another in a series of red flag warnings for Sunday due to wind that could fan the flames of existing fires — or potentially spur new fires — but incident meteorologist Todd Carter said he expects Sunday’s weather to be far less extreme than the conditions when the two fires started.

“Gusty winds are going to be nothing like they were on Tuesday,” Carter said.

In Jackson County, meteorologists expect westerly winds of about 10 to 15 miles per hour with occasional gusts of about 25 miles per hour starting at 11 a.m. Sunday and lasting until about 9 p.m. In the Shasta Valley and east of the Southern Oregon Cascades, winds will blow southwest between 15 and 25 mph with wind gusts of between 30 and 40 mph, according to the Weather Service.

The winds will “lift the lid” on some of the wildfire smoke and shift it east, Carter said, potentially opening the way, should visibility improve, for aerial resources to rejoin the firefight — but also feeding oxygen to the fire.

“We see changes and we want to pay attention,” Carter said.

The Almeda fire was 50 percent contained Saturday and saw only “minimal growth” overnight, according to a release from the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office, but crews were bracing for warmer temperatures and light winds later Sunday.

On Saturday, 107 personnel were working the fire, with 12 engines, 3 dozers, 4 water tenders, and 2 rotors, according to the Oregon State Fire Marshal.

The focus Saturday was on mitigating the myriad hazardous conditions in the fire zone, which include “fire debris, unstable structures, downed utility lines, as well as venting natural gas lines,” according to fire officials.

The fire affected 42,412 people, and threatened 16,163 homes.

The Level 2 “Be Set” evacuation alert for the South Obenchain fire in northern Jackson County has expanded to surround the whole perimeter of the fire.

The areas around and including the towns of Shady Cove and Butte Falls and the area in between remained under a Level 3”Go” evacuation alert. The “Go” evacuation zone reaches Lost Creek Lake to the north, just south of Highway 140 to the south, west of Shady Cove to the west, and east of Butte Falls to the east.

The Level 2 “Be Set” evacuation zone borders the north and east side of Eagle Point, as well as the entire fire perimeter.

On Saturday morning, fire managers reported an infrared thermal heat imaging flight revealed the fire was at 29,432 acres. The fire was 20% contained.

For a map of current evacuation zones for wildfires in Jackson County, see jacksoncounty.org/evacuation.

For updates on the fire, visit facebook.com/SouthObenchainFire.

Fire managers issued the following report about the status of the South Obenchain fire Saturday morning:

The overnight humidity recovery along with very little winds allowed firefighters to continue to make progress to construct and improve containment lines. Crews were able to tie lines together on the south and western portions of the fire. This area is in patrol and mop up status; however, the expected increase in the winds this afternoon could test fire lines.

If the inversion of cloud cover lifts prior to the approaching cold front, aircraft might be able to assist crews on the ground. The northwest perimeter was tied together with a hand and dozer line.

Focus will be on the east and southeastern area of the fire, where the fire is moving into steep topography, which dozers cannot access. Two task forces of structural engines, with the Oregon State Fire Marshal, are working along the Butte Falls Highway and also the Shady Cove area triaging and providing point protection. Three additional crews and other resources arrived to join the suppression efforts.

On Sunday night, a night shift of firefighters will continue to construct, hold and improve all fire lines, and provide point protection to infrastructure.

Evacuees can go to the Jackson County Expo, 1 Peninger Road, Central Point, where there are bathrooms, showers, food and medical care and shelter.

Doug Johnson, commander for Northwest Incident Management Team 8, said the Southern Oregon fires are just part of “one of the most unprecedented fire seasons in the history of this state.”

There’s 75 uncontained large fires across the country, and 24 within the region of Oregon and Washington.

“We are very scarce on resources due to all the large fires going on,” Johnson said.

Fire behavior analyst Jim Hampton with the incident management team said the extreme dry conditions in Southern Oregon began last winter with a lack of snowpack.

“We got a fair amount of spring rain, but without that snowpack all that did was set us back,” Hampton said.

Compounding those drought conditions was the lack of any sort of rain for nearly three months.

“It takes less of a trigger when your fuels are that critically dry to get a big conflagration that we’ve been getting lately,” Hampton said.

Hampton said he expected this type of dry fire weather to “continue throughout the year. Even if we get some shots of moisture, we’re going to experience this same thing.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat. Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter at @VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune The national guard help control the Hwy 99 closure at the intesection of Valley View Rd and Jackson Rd in Ashland Saturday.