GRANTS PASS — Heavy smoke from a fire burning on Beacon Hill in Grants Pass drifted down Interstate 5 and well into Jackson County on Friday.
Investigators are still seeking the cause of the blaze, which sparked in the early afternoon high above Grants Pass.
The Oregon Departrment of Forestry is asking anyone who saw how the fire on Beacon Hill in Grants Pass started to call 541-471-3883.
"The fire had several start points, so it's probable it was caused by sparks from a car," said Brian Ballou, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Ballou said the fire started between 3:15-3:30 p.m. along the northbound lane near Interstate milepost 55.
The Oregon Department of Forestry is asking anyone who saw a car throwing off sparks in that area to call fire investigators.
"It's possible the owner of this car could be billed for the cost of fighting the fire," Ballou said.
Katrina Davis was napping in her home on Elida Drive when she received calls from friends telling her a fire was happening near her home in northeast Grants Pass.
Davis walked out her front door and gazed up to see a wall of thick, brown smoke crawling toward her home.
"I don't want to be nervous, but I am," she said. "I just want the fire to stay over there."
Just down the street from Davis, residents living on Tokay Heights grabbed garden hoses and began soaking their roofs and yards.
Among them was Suzanne Rosa, who was at work when she learned that the fire had pushed into the brush above her home.
"I wanted to get home because my cats were inside," Rosa said. "Then I got up on the roof and just starting hosing."
The fire burned in remote wildland atop the hill. It moved through heavy brush in areas with few roads for firefighter access, Ballou said.
"They have a bulldozer up there making a way to the fire," Ballou said.
The smoke climbed high above town and drifted across Interstate 5 between mileposts 55 and 58. Oregon State Police slowed traffic in the area to keep driving conditions safe.
The fire charred an estimated 75 acres by late evening. Two structures on Beacon Hill were damaged, Ballou said.
"I'm not sure if they were homes our outbuildings at this point," Ballou said.
Residents living on and around Beacon Hill evacuated their homes.
Two helicopters worked throughout the afternoon scooping up water in drop-buckets from a nearby pond and making passes over the flames.
Fire crews from several Jackson County agencies rushed up the freeway to help Grants Pass Rural Metro contain the blaze.
Wind gusts helped push the fire across the hill, though the flames did not jump the freeway and reach the city's residential areas.
Smoke from the blaze drifted into Rogue River and then into the outer limits of Medford by late Friday afternoon.
Fire crews were expected to work through the night to contain the blaze, which marked the unofficial beginning to fire season, Ballou said.
"Fire season actually starts on Monday, but we were early this year," Ballou said.
The start of fire season means that debris burning, other than burn barrels for those with permits, is banned. Burning in burn barrels is prohibited beginning July 1.
The region is already drier than usual at this time of year and the long-range forecast is calling for a hot and notably arid summer.
The spring has seen 54 wildfires that have burned 48 acres, Of these fires 17 were started by debris burns. Another 23 fires, including a 6-acre blaze, were the result of lightning storms on May 5-6.
If Friday was any indication, fire crews will be plenty busy this summer.
"We'll see what happens," Ballou said. "This was quite a start to the season."
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.