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June 9, 2023

Oregon man sentenced to 11 years in blaze that merged with 2020 Almeda Fire

Oregon man sentenced to 11 years in blaze that merged with 2020 Almeda Fire

An Oregon man accused of starting a wildfire as another destructive blaze was burning in 2020 was sentenced Monday to 11 years in prison, prosecutors said.

Michael Bakkela, 43, was accused of setting a second fire as the Almeda Fire was raging in southwestern Oregon on Sept. 8, 2020.

The Almeda Fire swept through the towns of Phoenix and Talent, burning more than 3,000 acres and destroying more than 2,500 homes in all.

Bakkela pleaded no contest to a count of arson, 16 counts of criminal mischief and two counts animal abuse Wednesday in connection with the fire he caused, the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office said.

The Almeda Fire was well involved by the time Bakkela set the other fire, officials said at the time.

The main fire started around 11 a.m., and the second one that Bakkela was accused of starting began around 5 p.m. The fires merged and became one.

The fire that Bakkela is alleged to have started destroyed or damaged a hemp farm and 14 homes, the district attorney’s office said. Several animals also died.

The Almeda Fire was one of more than 30 wildfires that burned across Oregon in September of that year. The blazes were fueled by hot, windy conditions.

There is no evidence that Bakkela was involved in the ignition of the Almeda Fire, the district attorney’s office said. The investigation into that blaze continues, the office said.

The fire began after Bakkela tried to drive a truck onto railroad tracks. Bakkela told police that it stalled and that he tried to get it going by pouring gasoline into the engine area, the district attorney’s office said. Arson investigators determined the fire was set.

Bakkela’s attorney, Donald Scales, said that Bakkela is remorseful and that his behavior was reckless but that he maintains he did not intend to start a fire, the Mail Tribune newspaper of Medford reported.

Phoenix and Talent are southeast of Medford.

Phil Helsel is a reporter for NBC News.

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