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. "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.
In southern Idaho, firefighters hoped calmer, cooler weather would help them gain ground on a wildfire that scorched more than 510 square miles.
The lightning-sparked fire was fueled by strong winds Sunday and Monday, blackening more than 327,000 acres and becoming the nation's largest actively battled wildfire since it started Saturday. So far, crews have contained 40 percent of the fire burning across a desolate, flat landscape of sagebrush and cheatgrass. Full containment was forecast for Friday.
Meanwhile, firefighters planned an aerial attack on a 1,300-acre wildfire that temporarily forced the evacuation of 200 homes in Kern County, about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
County fire Cmdr. Mark Geary said low temperatures and higher humidity allowed crews to close in on the two-square-mile fire overnight.
Temperatures in the area Wednesday were expected to reach triple digits, making it miserable for crews digging trenches and clearing vegetation.
About 200 homes were evacuated Tuesday but those orders were lifted later in the day.
Elsewhere in California, a lightning-sparked blaze burning in Yosemite National Park since Aug. 9 blackened 160 acres in the Lake Vernon area north of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The National Park Service said crews were managing the fire for ecological benefits.
Firefighters had mostly contained a blaze east of Mount Diablo State Park in Contra Costa County by Wednesday morning. The fire, covering 375 acres, initially threatened six homes and 20 outbuildings, but no evacuations were ordered.
In Ashland, firefighters were battling a 6-acre grass fire on one side of I-5 that destroyed the barn, two shacks and a trailer when they got the call that flames were running up a grassy hill across the freeway and igniting the line of homes, said city Fire Marshal and Division Chief Margueritte Hickman.
Walker said many people recently stopped watering their lawns and landscaping due to drought conditions and the high price of city water. That may have contributed to the dry conditions that fueled the fire, she said.
Some of the burned homes had shake roofs, which ignite easily, Hickman added.
"We are in extreme fire danger," she said, noting some of the landscaping close to homes could have contributed to them catching fire. "The reason we have restrictions are fires like this."
By dark, a line of burned homes stretched along the freeway side of the street, some gutted and some burned to the ground, flames still burning the interiors. Cars sped by on the freeway behind them.
"It looks like a war zone has gone through here," said District Fire Marshal Don Hickman, Margueritte Hickman's husband.
Associated Press Writer Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.