Smoke settles on the mountains in this photo shot looking west from the southwest side of Mount Ashland. - Jim Craven

Into the fire zone

More than 500 contract firefighters from southwest Oregon have been deployed to help battle nearly 850 lightning-caused wildfires burning in Northern California.

The 21 local contract crews of 20 firefighters each were joined by 80 contract firefighting personnel and 12 fire engines from the region, said Patty Burel, spokeswoman for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

An additional 45 agency firefighters from the area, including eight from Jackson County, have been deployed as a team to the Siskiyou Complex fires on the Klamath National Forest a dozen miles southwest of Happy Camp, Calif. Those fires covered about 1,400 acres as of mid-morning Tuesday.

"But we've got things covered here — we always keep back firefighting resources in case we need them," Burel said. "We've got the resources we need to respond to fires."

That includes more than 180 employees on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, according to district spokesman Jim Whittington.

A U.S. Forest Service contracted air tanker capable of making water or fire retardant drops can quickly be deployed from Redmond or Northern California should one be required, officials said. The Oregon Department of Forestry has contracted a tanker to be based at the Medford airport beginning the second week in July.

The local firefighters deployed are among more than 2,400 from Oregon sent south to fight wildfires in Northern California.

Southwest Oregon has the largest pool of contract firefighters in the state, Burel said. Each fire season, federal natural resource agencies dispatch the firefighters as needed to augment federal crews.

Carson Helicopters Services Inc. deployed three helicopters from its base at the Josephine County airport in Merlin to help douse the California fires. Two helicopters have been sent to fires near Chico while another has been dispatched to the Ukiah area, a spokeswoman said.

Six helicopters from Columbia Helicopters in Aurora near Portland also have been dispatched to California fires.

Erickson Air-Crane Inc. in Central Point has four helicopters fighting fires in the West but none are in California, a company spokeswoman said.

The California fires erupted after some 8,000 lightning strikes peppered the region over the weekend, burning more than 100,000 acres. Most of the strikes were "dry lightning" with little or no rain.

Southwest Oregon largely escaped the dry thunderstorms of last weekend, although three small fires popped up in the Wild Rivers Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou forest.

Ten fires were also reported on forestland protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry in Jackson and Josephine counties. Those fires were quickly snuffed out.

Although the southernmost portions of interior Oregon are slightly drier than normal, the region isn't as dry as California's forests, firefighters observe.

"We're not looking at the depth of dryness they've had in California," said Brian Ballou, spokesman for ODF's Southwest Oregon District. "But it won't take very long until we could get into some pretty significant fire behavior. Some of our crews in the last week or so have been seeing extreme fire behavior on exposed sites."

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service predicts a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms striking Jackson and eastern Josephine counties on Saturday. There also is a slight chance of lightning strikes on Sunday and Monday, according to the agency's forecast.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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