A fast-moving thunderstorm Saturday evening kept emergency crews throughout the Rogue Valley busy chasing small fires and clearing away downed trees.

A fast-moving thunderstorm Saturday evening kept emergency crews throughout the Rogue Valley busy chasing small fires and clearing away downed trees.

Oregon Department of Forestry crews doused one small fire after another, most of which were sparked by fallen power lines, said ODF spokesman Brian Ballou.

"Most of the fires were less than an acre," Ballou said. "We received numerous reports of smoke throughout the valley up until dark."

The storm, which dropped nearly 550 lightning strikes on Southern Oregon and Northern California, rumbled into Ashland just before 7 p.m. Wind gusts up to 45 mph kicked up dust and debris before a short heavy rain fell. More than 3,500 homes across the area lost power.

ODF crews will rise early today to spot potential forest fires caused by the lightning. Ballou said all days off were canceled and the ODF will fly a reconnaissance plane over the valley to assess the damage. Most of the fires were spotted in the Sardine Creek area north of Gold Hill and Galls Creek near Jacksonville, Ballou said.

"All we can do now is wait and see," Ballou said.

Geeno Valdez of Medford was attending church in Ashland as the storm approached from the south. He did not want to drive in the severe weather so he left Ashland with his wife and drove to Medford. He was eating dinner at Tasty Thai on South Central Avenue when a large street along the road began to sway back and fourth in the wind.

"It was like a tornado there for a while," Valdez said. "Suddenly, I saw the tree and just knew it was going to snap."

The tree split in half and fell on South Central Avenue, blocking all four lanes. Medford police barricaded the area and directed traffic onto Riverside Avenue.

"It was a good thing no one was driving along when it went," Valdez said. "They could have been killed."

Another tree fell onto the intersection of East Fourth and East Jackson streets, blocking one lane. Emergency crews were able to quickly clear the road to traffic.

Meanwhile, tree limbs blown into power lines darkened thousands of Jackson County homes, according to Pacific Power spokesman Monte Mendenhall.

In all, 1,082 Central Point homes lost power, along with 1,468 customers in White City. Around 1,150 homes, primarily in east Medford, also lost power, Mendenhall said.

Pacific Power crews worked late into the evening to restore power. At least one traffic light, at Black Oak Drive and Siskiyou Blvd., was knocked out by the storm, Medford police reported.

The storm started as temperatures reached 100 degrees Saturday. Very little rain was reported to National Weather Service forecasters. There was one sighting of nickel-sized hail, according to meteorologist Sven Nelaimischkies.

"The largest cluster of lighting was reported in Jackson and Josephine counties and western Siskiyou County in California," Nelaimischkies said. "They actually had a couple of fire starts caused by lightning in Siskiyou County."

Today could bring a similar storm, as forecasters are calling for a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms by early evening. Highs today could reach the high 90s. The stormy weather could continue into early next week, with a slight chance of thunderstorms predicted for Monday.

"There might be more rain (today) than on Saturday and we are expecting some lightning," Nelaimischkies said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.