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Fire Frenzy

Fire FrenzyE. Antelope fire crests Grizzly Peak; flames are visible from Ashand

Wind catapulted the East Antelope fire over Grizzly Peak Wednesday, blowing away hopes that firefighters could quickly control the blaze.

It's over the top; it's over the top! yelled a resident of Dead Indian Memorial Road as she jogged down a graveled quarry path and sped off in her Toyota pickup to warn neighbors on Cove Road south of Dead Indian.

Son of a bitch! yelled another resident, Nelson Davis, from his perch at the old rock quarry off Shale City Road.

Eyeing a firefighting fleet of helicopters and bombers through binoculars, Davis was one of several in the area who watched unbelieving as the flames marched up Grizzly Peak from the northwest and poured down its south side.

The puff of smoke hovering above Grizzly Peak exploded into a mushroom cloud visible from Interstate 5 and Ashland Wednesday afternoon. Fanned by northwest winds, the fire doubled in size within hours, reaching 1,800 acres by nightfall. Flying sparks set off smaller fires on the mountain's west side, creating a show for Ashland residents and freeway motorists alike.

No homes were immediately threatened, however.

The fire ignited Tuesday afternoon when tree limbs rubbed against power lines, dropping sparks into dry brush located several miles off East Antelope Road. High temperatures, increased power use and smoky air caused the power lines to sag into the tree, said Monte Mendenhall, a spokesman for Pacific Power.

Quickly growing to 200 acres, the fire puffed off toward forestland and away from residences near East Antelope Road. State forestry officials initially said they had high hopes of putting a lid on the blaze by daylight on Wednesday if the wind didn't come up.

But it did.

A little bit of wind went a long way. The inversion lifted, and it went 'pop,' said Howard Hunter, fire information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Coupled with the low humidity, the wind stoked the fire to 500 acres by morning. Masses of dried brush and other vegetation became tinder for the fire. evening, the fire had gobbled up forests behind Grizzly Peak and set its sights on Dead Indian Road, where residents watched its hungry advance.

We're ... just packing up the albums, grabbing the checkbook, the Visa cards ... and getting the hell out of here, Davis said.

Only residents of the area were able to drive past a roadblock at Dead Indian and Highway 66 Wednesday night. Grizzly Peak Road was closed at Shale City Road, and fire officials requested that onlookers stay out of the area. The blaze was 2.5 miles from Dead Indian Memorial Road Wednesday night.

No evacuations had been ordered, but county fire district engines had been called to protect a remote home located more than a mile off Dead Indian. Because the home's occupant has a physical disability, he was asked to leave before the fire got close enough to threaten his house, Hunter said. However, the man was reluctant, so firefighters were ordered to keep on eye on his property.

More than 300 firefighters with 14 bulldozers and a dozen engines were assigned to the fire. Three planes and seven helicopters led the attack from the sky.

The fire was expected to slow down Thursday, Hunter said. Because the fire was headed down the mountain, it wouldn't burn as quickly or as hot in the grassy oak-covered hills on Ashland's outskirts, Hunter said. The grass and oaks don't burn as well as forest brush, he added.

However, firefighters were preparing for the wind to provide a challenge today, Hunter said. Northwest winds up to 10 mph were in store, said meteorologists with the National Weather Service.

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Three Modesto, Calif., residents who came to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival found a real-life drama Wednesday: the East Antelope fire. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell