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Photo by Brian Winkler
A lightning strike is captured on camera Friday morning from the Denman Wildlife Area along the Rogue River looking southwest.

Lightning blasts Jackson County; sparks fires

Jackson County was hit by 336 lightning strikes during a six-hour window on Sunday morning and afternoon — sparking blazes that kept fire agencies scrambling.

Southwest Oregon and northwest California counties were hit with more than 2,000 strikes, according to the National Weather Service in Medford.

The total number of fire starts on all categories of land for the area was not immediately available.

But by Sunday evening, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest alone reported 70 lightning-caused fires on U.S. Forest Service land.

“We knew this was coming and prepared for it by bringing in additional resources in to help respond,” said Deputy Fire & Aviation Staff Officer Dan Quinones.

The largest fire, estimated at 50 acres late Sunday, was burning approximately 6 miles west of the Ashland Watershed and sending up a large column of smoke. That fire burning near Hells Peak has been named the Hendrix Fire. It started near the border of Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry-protected lands.

Resources on the Hendrix Fire include two ODF engines, two ODF medium-sized helicopters, a large air tanker, a heavy helicopter, the Rogue River Hotshots and a 20-person initial attack crew. Additional air tankers and dozers have been ordered. This fire is challenging firefighters with suppression efforts, Forest Service officials said Sunday night.

A smaller fire was burning Sunday night in the Ashland Watershed itself.

A medium helicopter with a bucket and two two-person Siskiyou Rappel crews were assigned to the watershed fire. The rappel crews and helicopter were making good progress on the fire, Forest Service officials said.

Meanwhile, 10 smokejumpers responded to several fire starts south of Prospect, and also to several starts south and west of Robinson Butte in the High Cascades Ranger District.

The smokejumpers have made good progress and containment issues are not expected, except for the five-acre Gravel Fire, which is actively burning and crossed containment lines, officials said.

In the Wild Rivers Ranger District in the Grants Pass, Cave Junction and Selma area, the Stanislaus Hotshots and an engine from Alaska have responded to four new starts located approximately two miles northwest of Selma, officials said.

A fire on Sanger Peak is currently 10 acres in size with rappellers, one engine and a 20-person hand crew assigned. The Sanger Peak and the Spring Fires are pushing against containment lines. Smokejumpers have been ordered for initial attack on the Little Grayback Fire.

In the Gold Beach Ranger District near the Oregon Coast towns of Gold Beach, Brookings and Agness, the 3-acre Bear Fire — located a few miles northeast of Bear Camp — was being staffed with three engines plus Coos Fire Protective Association Resources, officials said.

Forest Service officials said that as a result of the numerous lightning starts and additional lightning expected across the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, more resources have been ordered — including five 20-person Type 2 initial attack crews, 15 engines, two heavy helicopters and two medium helicopters, smokejumpers from Redmond and four rappellers.

At the Medford Air Tanker Base at the Medford airport, firefighting planes and helicopters were continually landing and taking off Sunday.

At 5 p.m. Sunday, Justin Bohannan, air tanker base manager, was coordinating the movements of at least 14 airplanes and 16 helicopters that were simultaneously in the air over southwest Oregon and northwest California. Additional aircraft were on the ground being resupplied with fuel and fire retardant.

Firefighters from multiple agencies flooded dispatchers with messages Sunday, putting in requests for air support or asking when requested aircraft might arrive.

Again and again during the day, various fire agencies reported they were using all their resources, and dispatchers said all air support was engaged.

Excessive heat from an ongoing heat wave continues to fuel the fires and complicate firefighting efforts.

The National Weather Service has issued an excessive heat warning through Tuesday for southwest Oregon and northwest California, excluding a cooler zone along the Pacific coast.

High temperatures could reach 100 to 109 degrees, with nighttime temperatures dipping to 66 to 74 degrees, the weather service predicted.

“The hottest weather of the year will continue to impact inland areas through at least Tuesday. Temperatures will be 10 to 15 degrees above normal for this time of year, and relief at night will be limited as lows in some areas will stay in the middle 60s to lower 70s,” the weather service advised.

The hot temperatures are increasing the risk of heat-related illness, especially for sensitive groups and people without access to air conditioning. Heat stress is also possible for livestock and outdoor pets, the weather service said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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