GOLD HILL — On the day the Oregon Department of Forestry raised the fire danger level to "extreme," a 20-acre blaze sparked in trees on Nugget Butte north of Gold Hill.
Investigators are working to find the cause of the fire, which threw a long column of brown smoke above Gold Hill by midafternoon.
ODF spokesman Brian Ballou was on the scene with several firefighters from his agency, along with personnel from Jackson County Fire District No. 3 and Rogue River Fire.
"We had at least two homes near the fire that were threatened, but the fire moved up the hill away from them," Ballou said.
ODF did not order evacuations and allowed residents who lived in the slopes above Gold Hill to drive up to their homes.
Police shut off Highway 234 heading northbound from Gold Hill for several hours as fire crews set up their staging area below the blaze.
A bomber plane loaded with fire retardant made several passes throughout the afternoon, dropping loads directly on the butte.
The air attack continued with two helicopters scooping buckets of water from the Rogue River and releasing them on the flames.
Ballou said the bucket drops might have slowed the fire considerably.
"They have a pretty quick turnaround right here," Ballou said. "They don't have to go far to find a source of water."
A bulldozer and hand crews were called in to dig a line around the fire before it could spread.
There was initial concern that there weren't enough crews available to handle the blaze, Ballou said.
Firefighters are spread thin right now across the southern part of the state as several large fires burn in Northern California and Eastern Oregon.
"There are not a lot of extra crews around," Ballou said. "In fact, there's really none."
As the afternoon wore on, the bombers focused their drops on a ridge on the east side of Nugget Butte.
By around 6 p.m. the blaze had grown to nearly 20 acres, burning through black oak and ponderosa pines, Ballou said.
Fire crews were expected to monitor the scene throughout the night, Ballou said.
The blaze came on the day ODF increased the local fire danger to its highest level.
As temperatures in the triple digits are expected to continue through Friday, ODF announced a ban on the public use of chainsaws, mowing and cutting dead grass, welding and other potentially fire-starting activities between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.