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Sheriff: More than 2,800 structures destroyed by Almeda fire

The count of structures lost to the Almeda fire keeps growing, with more than 2,800 now tallied as having been destroyed by the fire, Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler reported Friday afternoon.

An urban search-and-rescue team with members from Utah and Nevada may finish its count of destroyed buildings and its search for human remains by Saturday, he said.

“So far, they’ve evaluated nearly 4,000 structures in the Almeda fire scar and have documented just over 2,800 buildings destroyed,” he said Friday.

The count includes houses, duplexes, apartments, shops, businesses and other structures, Sickler said.

The numbers don’t count individual housing units lost, such as all the units in an apartment complex, he noted.

City and county staff members are going through the data to create a breakdown of the different types of structures lost, Sickler said.

“They are going to continue to push until they get that completed for our community,” Sickler said.

The count of fire victims remains at three. The search-and-rescue squad is using trained dogs to search for victims, Sickler said.

The sheriff’s office currently has no more people considered to be missing from the Almeda fire. More than 2,100 evacuees have registered online to report they are safe, he said.

Local search teams have been going through rural areas burned by the fire, as well as on the periphery of the burn, to search for any victims or survivors on the edges of the fire, he said.

For the South Obenchain fire burning between Butte Falls and Shady Cove in north Jackson County, the count of destroyed structures currently stands at 153, Sickler said.

The structures for that rural fire also need to be broken down into categories, including homes, barns and shops, he said.

The Oregon Department of Forestry is investigating the cause of the South Obenchain fire, although it is not considered suspicious. There have been no fatalities and no people were considered missing as of Friday, Sickler said.

For the Almeda fire, more areas of Phoenix and Talent are opening up to evacuees, along with business areas, including the business district around Ray’s Food Place in Phoenix and the shops at Exit 24 off Interstate 5, Sickler said.

To view a current map of evacuation zones and levels in Jackson County, see jacksoncounty.org/evacuation.

Sickler said he understands evacuation closures have been frustrating for residents, but they were needed to keep people safe and allow first responders and utility workers to do their jobs. Electricity, natural gas, sewer and water workers are on the job to restore services.

Sickler said the criminal investigation into the origin of the Almeda fire at the north end of Ashland is ongoing. The Ashland Police Department is the lead agency on that with assistance from the sheriff’s office, the Medford Police Department and Oregon State Police.

“Everyone’s working hard to figure out how that fire started,” Sickler said.

Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 41, is in the Jackson County Jail on $5 million bail after being accused of starting a fire in Phoenix as the Almeda fire was sweeping through Talent and Phoenix. The fire started at that second origin point contributed to the destruction, an indictment alleges.

Bakkela pleaded not guilty Tuesday to two counts of first-degree arson, 15 counts of first-degree criminal mischief and 14 counts of recklessly endangering another person. He has a long history of arrests in Jackson County dating back to 1997 on charges that range from methamphetamine possession to being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Sickler said a wide cross section of the community has been helping on the wildfires.

“I want to thank all the firefighters and the first responders who are working diligently to put these fires out and to mitigate the risks in our community and to keep our public safe,” he said.

Sickler pointed to the broad array of services that have been set up at an evacuee shelter site at The Expo, 1 Peninger Road, Central Point, along with other efforts in the community.

“Thank you to everyone for what you’re doing,” Sickler said.

The American Red Cross is now running overnight shelter services. Row after row of socially distanced cots have been set up inside a large building at The Expo. People are also camping outside in tents and vehicles. Other evacuees are scattered at hotels or are staying with friends and family or in other shelters.

La Clinica has brought a mobile medical van to provide care. On Friday, health care workers set up screens outside to create makeshift exam rooms to ensure patient privacy.

A large contingent of bilingual speakers is on hand to help the Latinx community, which has been hard hit by the fires, and the Rogue Valley Transportation District is providing shuttle service to connect The Expo with other towns, said John Vial, acting director of the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center.

Vial said rumors are spreading on social media that The Expo has suffered a COVID-19 outbreak, but those rumors are untrue.

Vial said more Federal Emergency Management Agency workers are coming to help with the disaster.

In the meantime, individuals and business owners who sustained losses should begin applying for assistance by registering online at www.disasterassistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-3362 or 1-800-462-7585 TTY.

With wildfires destroying parts of Oregon, Washington and California, local residents should apply for assistance as soon as possible, state officials said.

“When you do, that helps start the whole process,” Vial said.

The location is yet to be determined, but local governments want to set up a one-stop recovery center where people can apply for FEMA aid and get other help regarding damaged and destroyed property. They hope to have that center up and running sometime next week, Vial said.

The city of Medford is loaning Kelly Madding, an experienced planning and building services professional and manager of municipal government, to lead that effort.

Vial cautioned people not to start clean-up efforts before local officials have a more thorough understanding of the FEMA process for getting aid.

Insurance companies are also advising people not to remove damaged property yet because assessments need to be made for insurance claims. Contact your own insurance company for more specific advice.

Local officials have been in contact with people from communities that have been previously decimated by fire, including those from Paradise, California. That town was almost completely destroyed by a 2018 wildfire.

“They’re giving us good advice,” Vial said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Much of Talent was decimated by the Almeda fire that tore through town Sept. 8. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch