ASHLAND, Ore. — Families looked for valuables, pets and mementoes Wednesday in the ashes of 11 homes destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire while a homeless man accused of starting the blaze sat in jail.
John Thiry, 40, was arrested at 3 a.m. under a freeway ramp and arraigned on 10 counts of reckless endangerment and 14 counts of reckless burning, police said.
“Homeless living in the interface in Ashland is a real problem and a huge concern,” said Gary Jones as he helped his daughter, Lisa Jones, look through the blackened waterlogged rubble that used to be her home. “Who wants to be homeless? But by the same token, you can’t have camping in the middle of summer out there and lighting the place on fire.”
Ashland police Detective Sgt. Jim Alderman said other people at a homeless camp along Interstate 5 just outside the city limits saw Thiry running from the initial fire Tuesday afternoon.
The fire immediately burned an abandoned barn where homeless people sleep, and the embers blew across the freeway, touching off the blaze that raced through a subdivision, Alderman said.
The fire on the outskirts of Ashland, a town of about 21,000 people best known as home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, ignited the 11 homes on one side of the same street one after the other, setting off explosions Tuesday afternoon.
“It was just inferno — black smoke, RV, things blowing up, gas tanks, tires,” neighborhood resident Cindy Walker said. “Propane tanks, I don’t know. It sounded like bombs going off. Like tornadoes of black smoke coming out of garages and backyards.”
Lisa Jones, pregnant with her first child, said she had just gone outside to get a tomato from the garden when she saw a house down the street was on fire. Her husband, teacher Nanosh Lucas, was on the couch recuperating from minor surgery. They managed to grab her computer and set a propane tank out in the street so it wouldn’t explode before a police officer told them it was time to go. They drove away in her car, leaving his in the driveway, where it burned.
When they returned, their cat, Lucy, was nowhere to be found. The house was flattened.
“It was really cool,” Lisa Jones said of her ruined home. “It had a nice open floor plan. About a year ago we finished painting it. We took down the wallpaper. We put down new floors. We had all our artwork from traveling.
“We just drove away,” she said.
While Lisa Jones and her best friend, Lauren Jones, took photos of the rubble, Gary Jones exclaimed that he had found two carbonized tomatoes in what was left of the garden.
“No way! Stop it! Serious?” his daughter exclaimed. “Oooooooh. The one garden I ever had.”
“These are going in the museum,” Gary Jones said.
Three other houses were damaged and homes along four streets in the 1970s-era neighborhood were evacuated. The flames were finally controlled around dusk and no injuries were reported. Officials were tallying the damage Wednesday and looking for the cause of the blaze, which burned less than 20 acres.