EAGLE POINT — Fire investigators combed through charred wood, blackened tools and burned albums Wednesday hoping to find a lead on why the former Ed's Oasis burned down Tuesday evening.
Investigators from the Eagle Point Fire Department and Jackson County Fire District No. 3 started at the back of the two-story building at 866 S. Royal Ave., where neighbors said they first saw the flames, said Hugh Holden, District 3 fire marshal.
"We work backwards," said Holden. "We eliminate the potential sources first, that's what makes it so difficult."
The fire started at about 7 p.m. Jim Nelson, 51, who lives across the street, heard crackling noises from his backyard. When he saw the wall of flames, he called 9-1-1. The firemen arrived about three minutes later, he said.
The building's owner, Ed Dahack, 88, was working at the current Ed's Oasis across the street when the fire started.
"I was in the office and the bartender said the tavern was on fire," Dahack said.
The building had been owned by the Dahack family for about 90 years, he said. The building was first used as a barber shop before it was turned into the original Ed's Oasis tavern in about 1951.
When Ed's Oasis was moved into the current building in 1964, Dahack rented out the top floor and used the bottom floor to store his antiques and tools and materials to maintain his Eagle Point rental units. He said there was more than 40 years' accumulation of building materials stored there.
"There's probably $50,000 of equipment in that building that's gone," Dahack said.
"It's a shame," Nelson said. "He had a lot of antiques in there."
Both upstairs residents, Stephen Malloy, 59, who does landscaping and maintenance for Ed's Oasis, and his girlfriend, Lynda Tupper, 54, were able to escape the building unharmed. The couple's 15-year-old cockatiel was not as fortunate.
"Everything was gone except what we were wearing," Malloy said.
Malloy and Tupper said they each lost a couple thousand dollars' worth of personal belongings.
Eagle Point police declined to comment while the investigation is under way. Many of the neighbors reported seeing a man who lives nearby acting suspiciously around the building just before the fire started.
Dahack said the man had been kicked out of his tavern several times and had been banned from the premises. The night of the fire, the man was arguing with a woman outside the tavern and threatened to burn her house down, then asked another woman to bring him a box of matches, Dahack said.
The man is a "known thief around here," said Andrea Scheer, 17. Scheer and her mother, Melody, share the house with Nelson.
Jennifer Burg, 26, who lives a few houses down from the building, said she saw a man standing in front of her house at about 6:30 p.m. wearing a black hat, black T-shirt, boots and short pants. She guessed he was in his mid-30s.
"He had a blank, lost look on his face," Burg said.
When her neighbors made eye contact with him, he took off behind her neighbor's property, she said.
Malloy and Tupper were barbecuing behind the building when they saw the same man described by Burg lingering on their property. Malloy shooed him off, but he crawled under their deck saying he had "to take a leak," Malloy said.
Tupper went upstairs and Malloy went to notify Dahack about the man. Malloy returned just in time to see the flames and see Tupper escaping the building with "the cats scooting everywhere behind her," he said.
"The whole place was up in minutes," Malloy said.
"The big buzzword out there is 'arson,' but as investigators, it's a clean slate for us," said District 3 Deputy Fire Marshal Don Hickman.
Hickman said investigators were considering all possible causes, including whether electrical problems or gas played a role. He is expected to release more information today.
It took firefighters more than an hour to get the blaze under control, Hickman said. The outer walls still standing, but had to be knocked down because they were teetering, Holden said. One crew stayed overnight to monitor the hot spots.
Two firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion while battling flames that reached to the top of nearby trees. Hickman said they both have recovered.
The Red Cross provided Malloy and Tupper, who had no renter's insurance, with money for food, clothing and three nights in a hotel. Further accommodations may be provided later depending on their situation, said Marj Jameson, executive director of the Red Cross.
Dahack said he might sell the property once the debris is hauled away.
"I'm going to clean it up and make a good parking lot for somebody," he said.
Reach intern Teresa Thomas at 776-4464 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.