Storm quenches area fires

Rain likely will push back start of valley's wildfire season

Monday evening's storm that blanketed the region with more than 1,000 lightning strikes carried with it not only enough rain to quell most new fires, but also stave off the start of the Rogue Valley's wildfire season.

Periods of downpours during the repeated waves of lightning strikes in Northern California and Southern Oregon kept Monday evening's ensuing fires down to about a dozen, much to the liking of wildfire crews who spent Monday chasing more than a dozen fires caused by Sunday's lighting that didn't include much rain.

"Getting a good, quenching rain with the lightning certainly is a good deal," said Brian Ballou, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District.

"That will take a lot of the concern out of it, take a lot of the current fire risk significantly down."

The worst of the fires late Monday appeared to be in a garbage dump around a quarry near Anderson Butte, where billowing black smoke initially had fire crews expecting to see a structure fire.

The fire was taking extensive water to extinguish, Ballou said. No cause had been determined Monday but "a strike of lightning is entirely plausible," he said.

State forestry crews still will send up a helicopter this morning to scout for new fires like they did Monday morning after Sunday's lightning fest.

At the same time, however, state foresters won't be ramping up plans to state summer wildfire season restrictions that just Monday looked like they could be put into effect here as early as this weekend.

"There still will be some mop-up work, but I think a lot of the attention to start fire season right away will be put off for a while," Ballou said.

The National Weather Service logged 550 lightning strikes in Southern Oregon and California's Siskiyou and Modoc counties between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., eventually ebbing to fewer than 200 between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.

"We've been blanketed by lightning," said Meteorologist Sven Nelaimischkief from the weather service's Medford office. "I'd say confidently over 1,000 strikes in our area."

The heaviest rain associated with Monday's storm hit Northern California, where Quartz Hill logged slightly more than an inch of rain and Juanita Lake north of Mount Shasta measured a hair under an inch, Nelaimischkief said.

In Jackson County, the gauge where Highway 140 bisects Little Butte Creek measured .22 inches of rain, while Mount Stella west of Crater Lake logged .38 inches, according to the weather service.

Monday's lightning strikes came after wildland firefighting crews spent a busy day mopping up more than a dozen fires in Southern Oregon, where such storms are considered rare.

"To have them come in the first part of May is definitely unusual. We have found 13 so far but we expect to find others," Ballou said.

The largest blaze covers about five acres in the Elk Creek drainage just north of Trail in what was a series of a half-dozen lighting fires from Sunday, he said.

"It burned pretty good when it was in brush and grass, but when it hit the shadowy forest area it just laid down," he said. "Most of the fires we have are small. Some are no more than a single tree."

Statewide, ODF battled seven fires over the weekend that burned larger areas than is typical for early May. The largest was near Canyonville, a 180-acre blaze named for Shively Creek. It was reported in rough terrain, burning in logging slash and old-growth timber.

Firefighters said some of the blazes spread from burning debris piles and asked landowners to take precautions, such as having fire tools and a garden hose at the ready.

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