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FORT BRAGG — Three deputies aiding in a search through the thick and untamed forest east of Fort Bragg came under fire just before noon Thursday by a man they identified as Aaron Bassler, the suspect sought by deputies in two North Coast shooting deaths.

The men saw Bassler, 35, who fired from about 100 meters away and disappeared as they shot back, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said at an evening news conference.

The men were fired upon again moments later by an unseen shooter, presumably Bassler, who they believed was trying to flank them, Allman said. They shot back, but the man did not appear or shoot again, he said.

"We are somewhat hampered in the immediate search not only because of the dense brush, also because he's shooting at them with a rifle," Allman said.

The men fired 10 shots at Bassler, but he slipped back into the forest where he's been hiding since Aug. 27, when a gunman used a similar flanking technique to shoot and kill Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, Allman said.

None of the deputies was injured. It wasn't clear whether Bassler was struck, he said.

"We were very lucky that this situation was as it was and no one was injured," Allman said.

The shooting was the second encounter with Bassler, who has remained at large since he was identified as a suspect in Melo's killing. Bassler is also suspected in the shooting death of Albion resident Matthew Coleman, who was found dead Aug. 11 on a ranch north of Westport.

Following the exchange of gunfire Thursday, a half-dozen law enforcement officers stood guard along Highway 20, 10miles west of Willits, where the road overlooks the vast swath of forest that has been the focus of the search for Bassler.

An ambulance stood by the entrance to Irmulco Road on Highway 20, six miles west of Willits, which winds down into the Noyo River drainage and Bassler's home territory.

Eight miles down the dirt road, past Irmulco, a one-time train stop, a dozen officers waited at a command post at Northspur, along what is now the Skunk Train line. Northspur is now the turnaround stop for the Skunk Train and is not far from where Thursday's gunfire took place.

The deputies who encountered the shooter are a team from the Alameda County Sheriff's Office's special response team, similar to a SWAT unit, led by a sergeant with years of experience, said Alameda County Sheriff's Capt. David Brady at Thursday's news conference in Fort Bragg. The team, two deputies and a sergeant, are "highly trained" and had been aiding in the search for Bassler since Sunday, Brady said.

A replacement unit was dispatched to the area and the men were still undergoing interviews about the encounter late Thursday, he said.

"They're doing fine at this point," Brady said.

Their identities were not released because the investigation of the shooting is ongoing, Allman said.

Dog teams, aircraft and additional ground teams were sent to the area following the 11:50a.m. encounter.

The men spotted Bassler through scopes and noted that he appeared to be wearing black clothing, Allman said.

Allman said that Bassler appeared to be wearing camouflage and light clothing in surveillance images caught of him during a weekend break-in at a vacation cabin near Northspur.

"This time he was wearing black clothing which was apparently his regular M.O., according to people who know him," Allman said. "Somehow he changed clothing."

Thursday afternoon, law enforcement teams checked their gear and studied maps as they prepared for another round of searching the forest for the man who once again slipped away from would-be captors.

They included a U.S. Marshal and sheriff's deputies from Mendocino, Lake and Alameda counties. Joe Hernandez, a police officer from Pomona, and his bloodhound, Willow, joined the group as the sun began to fade.

Bassler previously was spotted near his mother's home outside Fort Bragg almost four weeks ago. A sheriff's dog pursued Bassler through the dense underbrush but returned to his handler with just a backpack.

Investigators believe Bassler remains in an area of the woods near Northspur, where they've confirmed he's broken into at least six cabins and taken weapons and food.

Late Thursday, Allman said the Sheriff's Office-led team was continuing its round-the-clock search with about 40 law enforcement agents and several police dogs.

Hounds will be sent into the area at daybreak today to locate any evidence to indicate whether Bassler was injured in the gunfire, Allman said.

Additional units from across the state were on hand to relieve the teams if needed, he said.

Allman said he believes his team had enough of a perimeter around the area that they would know if Bassler had left the vicinity of Northspur.

"Our problem is because the canopy is so dense," Allman said.

The forest is so dense that heat-sensing equipment couldn't detect officers whose locations were known, Allman said.

The forest, a combination of conifer, oak and scrub brush, is so thick, someone could hide just feet away and not be detected.

Bassler has the advantage of having that forest as his backyard growing up, authorities said. There also are numerous places for Bassler to take refuge. In less than a mile, there are more than a dozen cabins, shacks and homes visible from the road.

Most appear abandoned long ago, remnants of the early logging trade.

Many others are part-time homes and Bassler has been able to feed himself and increase his arsenal by breaking into them.

In one of the burglarized homes, it's believed Bassler was inside when its owner arrived. The owner, concerned about a break-in, was armed but put his gun on a table after entering, according to a law enforcement source. When he returned to the table, the gun was missing, the officer said.

However Allman said he didn't believe anyone was present when Bassler broke into the cabin and left a fingerprint behind.

Mark Owens, who lives at the top of Irmulco Road, said the burglary victim reported hearing the door close before returning to the table and finding his gun missing.

Owens on Thursday was disappointed to hear that Bassler had again eluded law enforcement.

"It's getting spooky," Owens said.

"They need to get a local guy out here" who knows the forest as well as Bassler, he suggested.

Carol Rice, who lives a little more than a mile from Northspur, said she'd like for life to return to normal, but she said she's not afraid to stay in her remote home.

She said she and her family continue to take walks and carry on as usual.

"You have to be more cautious," Rice said. But "you can't just stop your life because this is going on."

Outside the Fort Bragg Police Department on Thursday night, Fort Bragg Mayor Dave Turner let out a big sigh when asked if he was disappointed that Bassler remained at large.

"I thought it was going to end today," Turner said. But he took the encounter as a sign that the end was near.

"They've basically flushed him out to where he felt he had to take action," Turner said. "I'm so glad nobody got hurt."