ASHLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Arson investigators have opened a probe into the suspicious origins of a deadly Oregon wildfire that began in the town of Ashland and destroyed hundreds of homes in nearby communities, Ashland's police chief said on Thursday.
The remains of two victims have been found in ruins from the blaze, which erupted on Tuesday and roared through a third day in the midst of a spate of wildfires across Oregon, according to a spokesman for the state fire marshal.
More bodies are expected to be discovered as search teams comb through the wreckage of dwellings that were engulfed during a chaotic evacuation of populated areas along the path of the swiftly spreading flames, Ashland police chief Tighe O'Meara said.
"We tried to get people out as fast as we could," O'Meara told Reuters by phone. "Chances are there are going to be bodies in some of those homes. The likelihood of much larger (fatality) numbers is significant."
The blaze, dubbed the Almeda fire, originated Tuesday morning in Ashland, a city of some 21,000 residents in southern Oregon just 16 miles (26 km) from the California border that is home to Southern Oregon University and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The flames, driven by high winds, did relatively little damage to Ashland but quickly spread out of town and into neighboring communities along Bear Creek before roaring through the adjacent towns of Talent and Phoenix toward Medford, a city of 82,000 residents, O'Meara said.
He cited local news media estimates that roughly 600 homes were destroyed but added, "easily hundreds of homes were lost."
Reuters video footage from the fire zone showed miles of burned-out vehicles, flame-scorched ruins of gutted buildings and twisted debris lining state highway Route 99 in between Ashland and Medford.
The area was off-limits to evacuees, but here and there individuals and couples were seen trudging along the roadway with arm loads of belongings they apparently had managed to salvage from the wreckage of their homes.
Police in Medford as well as in Douglas County to the north cautioned against rumors that left-wing anti-fascists and right-wing Proud Boy extremists were starting the fires.
Rich Tyler, a spokesman for the state fire marshal's office, said separately that it was not immediately clear whether any of the fires raging across Oregon this week were deliberately set.
"Every fire is investigated for the possibility of arson so that we can either determine it is or rule it out," he said.
O'Meara said investigators of the Almeda fire, led by detectives from his department, were treating the blaze as suspicious, but declined to give further details.
"We have good reason to believe that there was a human element to it," he said. "We're going to pursue it as a criminal investigation until we have reason to believe that it was otherwise."
The Almeda fire was one of the most devastating of dozens of conflagrations that have burned through forests and communities across the western United States during the past few days, killing a total of at least nine people in northern California, Oregon and Washington state. [L1N2G72GT]
In addition to the two bodies found in the Almeda fire, Oregon's death toll included a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother who were believed to have perished in a separate blaze near Lyons, about 250 miles to the north.
Some 500,000 Oregon residents - about a quarter of the state's population - were under evacuation orders on Thursday, officials said.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Editing by Chris Reese, Richard Pullin and Edwina Gibbs)
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