The Almeda Fire: One Year Later

ASHLAND, Ore. – It’s hard to believe that it was one year ago that the Almeda Fire tore through the Rogue Valley. Many of us were just starting our day on September 8th of 2020 like any other, not knowing what was to come was something that would stick with us for the rest of our lives.

It’s hard not to be catapulted back to that day hearing just some of what firefighters were going through trying to attack the Almeda Fire. 

The first call about the fire came in at 11:06 a.m. and by 11:30 a.m., two homes were already destroyed. The fire was fueled by uncontrollable winds with gusts up to 45 miles per hour.

Student firefighter Jesse Vermillion said, “Not even 30 seconds in between one structure igniting to the next, to the next and you just watch it go down.”

Battling the Almeda Fire required unique teamwork. Not only did it require all of the resources from stations around the region, the Oregon Department of Forestry stepped up using their helicopters to drop retardant on homes. Usually, ODF only works on wildland fires, not structural ones. On top of that, an interstate agreement was requested, asking for the help of firefighters in California. 

“When you see ODF planes dropping over cities, that’s pretty unique. It means that things have gone really bad,” said Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler.  

Sickler said it wasn’t until around 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. that fire activity started to slow down and they could get ahead of evacuations. By then, the fire had made its way from Ashland all the way up to south Medford. In its 13 mile path, it killed three people and destroyed roughly 2,500 homes.

The county has faced a lot of harsh criticism for its use of its emergency alert system, or lack thereof.

NBC5 News was the first to ask officials about the emergency alert system, which goes to TV and radio stations was never used during the Almeda Fire. County officials have defended its use of its “citizen alert” notification system because it can warn people in a specific area. But “citizen alert” only works if you’re already signed up for it or have a landline telephone in the affected area. The EAS alert would have gone out to the whole county.

The Almeda Fire is considered the biggest criminal investigation in Jackson County. While police believe the fire was human-caused, a year later no one has been arrested for starting it.

Throughout the investigation, 18 law enforcement agencies from Oregon, Washington, even Alabama have assisted with the case and over 200 people have been interviewed. But police did arrest a man for starting a second fire that merged with the Almeda Fire that night.

Police say 41-year-old Michael Bakkela started a fire in Phoenix. He’s facing 32 separate charges including arson, criminal mischief, and reckless endangerment. Bakkela pleaded not guilty to all charges last year. He’s scheduled to appear in court in May of 2022.

People from all over the valley, the country, and, even internationally, rallied together to help. Every state in the country donated to the United Way of Jackson County — in addition, seven foreign countries including the Netherlands and Germany.

The nonprofit raised $3.4 million for its fire relief fund. Of that, they’ve invested $2.2 million dollars back into helping 837 families. The organization also helped Rogue Food Unites serve more than 770,000 to fire survivors.

Rogue Credit Union announced its fire relief fund broke $1 million.

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