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Nature might send showers

After lightning started the region's fires, help could arrive in the form of a cool trend ' and maybe rain

Mother Nature may be having second thoughts.

After igniting the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires in the Siskiyou National Forest with sizzling lightning bolts July 13, burning nearly 200,000 acres, she is sending some rain our way.

Maybe.

We're definitely getting a cooling trend this weekend ' fairly significant cooling, said meteorologist Robert Cramp, fire weather forecaster at the National Weather Service office at the Medford airport.

There will be a chance of rain Monday and Tuesday, he added. There will be some clouds with a chance of light rain. It'll probably be more than a shower.

With high temperatures predicted to be a relatively balmy 75 to 85 degrees Sunday through Tuesday, coupled with increased humidity and the chance of rain, fire officials hope to take advantage of the change to gain some ground in their battle against the two fires.

As of Thursday night, the Florence fire was estimated to have burned 159,000 acres while the Sour Biscuit fire is now at 36,000 acres. More than half of the Sour Biscuit fire ' 19,000 acres ' is in California.

Firefighters can use all the rain they can get, but they can do without any more lightning or wind, said Forest Service spokesman Tom Valluzzi.

Rain and lightning: One is good, the other isn't, he said. And wind? Who knows what will happen with that.

It's unlikely the change in the weather will include thunderstorms, Cramp said. However, the forecast does call for winds to pick up.

About 2,000 firefighters and support staff continue working to contain the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires. About 5 percent of the Florence and 10 percent of the Sour Biscuit are contained by fire lines.

The fires are less than two miles apart and expected to grow together a few miles west of O'Brien.

The strategy continues to be using burn-outs along a 30-mile fire line built near the eastern flank of the fire, Valluzzi said. Nearly 2,000 acres were burned to remove fuel between the fire and the fireline Wednesday night.

We plan to burn it out all along the fireline all the way down to California, Valluzzi said.

The fireline, the width of a bulldozer blade, stretches from Selma south to the state line. It includes dirt roads, natural fire breaks and old firelines as well as newly blazed trails.

We want a black line (of burned material) between the fireline and the fire so there is no chance it will jump the line, he said.

Although the fires have slowed down, they continue to creep along, he said. The return of traditional hot August days could spark an explosion in the fires, officials warned.

A squadron of helicopters ' some with built-in water tanks, others carrying buckets ' have been dousing hot spots most of the week.

Although air tankers flying out of the Medford airport were dropping retardant on the Sour Biscuit fire last week, they were unable to this week because of smoky conditions, officials said.

The planes since have been deployed to protect homes threatened by fires elsewhere, Valluzzi said.

Other fires have priority for air tankers right now, he said, although noting that fire officials continue to request tanker support.

It was just too smoky ' we had to move everything out, said Phil Cardin, manager of the Interagency Fire Center at the Medford airport. Until this smoke clears, that's going to be the situation.

Illinois Valley residents remain on a 30-minute evacuation notice.

About 950 residents had evacuated their homes since Sunday and registered with the American Red Cross, said Marj Jameson, executive director of the Rogue Valley chapter.

But most of the area's 20,000 residents are staying put. If a mass evacuation occurs, residents are advised to take Highway 199 to Grants Pass or Upper Deer Creek Road leading east through the mountains to Williams, according to Josephine County sheriff's Lt. Lee Harman.

The roads have been posted with 12-by-24-inch yellow signs with black letters indicating ESCAPE ROUTE.

Meanwhile, Highway 199 to the south is expected to remain closed at the state line until at least Saturday because of dangers posed by the Shelly Creek fire a dozen miles south of the border.

Although the fire covers only 700 acres, it is burning in steep terrain, causing trees and rocks to roll down onto the road, according to a spokeswoman for the Six Rivers National Forest.

In addition, the main fire continued to ignite spot fires because of sporadic winds in the Smith River canyon, she said.

About 15 percent of that fire has been contained by a fire line, she said.

All of the wildfires in the region are burning in a mosaic pattern. In some areas they flare up, igniting nearly all the fuel in their path. But in other areas, the fire creeps along the forest floor, burning only debris.

The high-intensity stuff kills just about everything, but a lot of species are adapted to the low-intensity burns, observed Lee Webb, wildlife biologist for the Siskiyou and Rogue River national forests.

Many areas burned by the low-intensity fire likely will benefit, he said.

This country has always burned, he said. But it's always in a mosaic.

Fire information officer Gil Knight, right, has been keeping Selma residents informed on the progress in the fight against the Florence fire. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli