The trial of a homeless man suspected of starting the Ashland fire that destroyed 11 houses is scheduled to begin Thursday morning in Jackson County Circuit Court.
John David Thiry, 40, is facing 10 counts of recklessly endangering another and 14 counts of reckless burning for allegedly starting the Aug. 24 blaze on Oak Knoll Drive that caused more than $3 million in property damage.
Thiry has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and is being represented by public defender Andy Vandergaw, said Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Michelle Paul.
Thiry has remained lodged in the Jackson County jail on $500,000 bail since his Aug. 25 arrest. All of his charges are misdemeanor crimes, each punishable by a maximum one year in jail.
The fire prompted a large-scale evacuation of the Ashland neighborhood and shut down traffic in town and on Interstate 5 for several hours. Fire officials who later trudged through the ash and dirt that was formerly covered with blackberry bushes and oak trees off Washington Street say their investigation shows the fire was human-caused.
But the evidence did not suggest that the field was intentionally set on fire, which would be considered arson, a felony. Also, no injuries were reported. If someone had been injured in the fire, Thiry could have also faced more felony charges, they said.
Witnesses say Thiry is known around Ashland for bizarre and erratic behavior that could be the result of mental illness. He often appeared disheveled and would randomly yell and scream to himself, they said.
Johnny Marler, 50, has known Thiry for six years. Both live on the street and have spoken at various times over the years. In the days after the fire, Marler said Thiry might suffer from schizophrenia or some other serious mental illness, citing incidents where he witnessed Thiry screaming and tearing out his hair.
Marler said Thiry was in the Washington Street area and had most likely started the fire accidentally, adding he saw Thiry trying desperately to put out the flames as the blaze rushed through the dry grass along Washington Street.
Thiry eventually gave up and ran through a nearby gas station parking lot and disappeared, Marler said.
Sanne Specht is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4497 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.