Man accused of starting part of Almeda fire pleads not guilty
A man accused of starting a fire that contributed to the devastating Almeda fire pleaded not guilty to a string of charges Tuesday and now has his bail set at $5 million.
Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 41, is charged with two counts of first-degree arson, 15 counts of first-degree criminal mischief and 14 counts of recklessly endangering another person.
Each count of arson could carry a maximum penalty of 20 years, each criminal mischief count could yield five years in prison and each count of recklessly endangering another person could lead to a one year jail sentence.
Police said the Almeda fire had two points of origin Tuesday, the first in Ashland and one later in Phoenix. The cause of the fire at the Ashland origin point is still under investigation.
Bakkela is accused of starting a fire that damaged or destroyed property at 15 addresses on Hoyt Lane, West Glenwood Road and Voorhies Road in northern Phoenix.
He is also accused of recklessly endangering 14 people in neighborhoods by unlawfully and recklessly creating a substantial risk of serious physical injury.
Witnesses called 911 to report a man was lighting a fire near the railroad tracks behind their home on Quail Lane Tuesday evening. In a preliminary report, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office detectives said they believe Bakkela parked a vehicle on a very grassy area, started a fire and then fled north before being apprehended.
The death toll from the Almeda fire stands at three, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said in a Monday afternoon update.
Numbers may continue to change as missing people are located and if more remains are found.
Sickler said there have been several arrests since the Almeda fire began associated with burglary, theft, driving under the influence of intoxicants and menacing in the area.
“We have been coordinating with our District Attorney’s Office and they are going to prosecute individuals who are involved in looting type crimes to the fullest extent possible,” he said.
Oregon law allows for longer sentences for people caught looting in disaster areas like the Almeda fire zone, Sickler said.
Law enforcement personnel have also made several arrests in the South Obenchain fire area in northern Jackson County that are associated with burglary, theft and other crimes. The sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies have stepped up patrols in areas near and under evacuation alerts, and the National Guard is helping to staff roadblocks to keep possible looters out, Sickler said.
In the Almeda fire arson case, Bakkela’s next court date is set for Sept. 21, in Jackson County Circuit Court. He will be assigned a defense lawyer from outside Jackson County to avoid any conflicts due to widespread damage within the county.
Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Laura Cromwell designated the case as a complex case at the request of Jackson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Markiewicz.
Also Tuesday, Bakkela pleaded not guilty to a charge of harassment from a previous case.
Bakkela is accused of crashing a stolen Ram pickup Nov. 13, 2019, in Central Point. A witness tried to detain him, but Bakkela punched the man in the chest in an attempt to get away, then was tackled by another witness, an off-duty Siskiyou County deputy, according to a probable cause affidavit.
A Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputy then arrived on the scene, and Bakkela was taken into custody, the affidavit said.
He has a pre-trial conference set for Sept. 28 for the harassment case.
Bakkela has a long history of arrests in Jackson County dating back to 1997 on charges that include methamphetamine possession, criminal driving with a suspended or revoked license, third-degree theft, criminal trespassing, interfering with a police officer, attempting to elude a police officer, felon in possession of a firearm and unauthorized use of a vehicle.
Police have described him as a transient. Court records list him as having a Salem address.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.