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Witnesses to Medford fire asked to aid probe

MEDFORD — State fire investigators would like to hear from people like Joe Bruhns.

The 46-year-old Medford man was pouring concrete Monday afternoon on Monterey Drive when he felt the wind shift at his back. He turned and saw a plume of smoke rising where investigators believe the Deer Ridge fire sparked, near Deer Ridge Drive and Vista Pointe Drive.

"I had this weird feeling that this was going to get really big really quick," Bruhns said.

He spent much of the day fretting that the fire would reach his home on Parkview Court in Medford's east hills, but his fears were allayed when he saw firefighters attack the flames as the day wore on.

"It was amazing to see how accurate they were with the helicopter water drops and the (fire-retardant) bomber," he said.

Now state fire investigators are looking to people like Bruhns to help them determine what started the 630-acre fire.

"We are hoping to talk to people who live up there who might have seen a suspicious car that was maybe driving off the road," Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Brian Ballou said. "That is the type of information that could be valuable to us."

State fire investigators spent Wednesday combing the area where the fire started, looking for evidence. They bagged and tagged items that could help them determine the source of the blaze.

"I haven't heard of any real breakthroughs yet," Ballou said.

Forestry officials also would like people who took photos and video of the fire as it started to share their images, Ballou said.

"It's pretty common for people to snap pictures of these fires," Ballou said. "We've been helped by these things before."

Crews made what Ballou called "excellent progress" Wednesday mopping up the Medford fire and the Siskiyou Fire, which burned 190 acres at the south end of Ashland on Monday. Besides local firefighters, crews and equipment came from Benton, Deschutes, Marion, Lane, Linn and Coos counties to protect structures after Gov. Ted Kulongoski invoked the Conflagration Act, which allows the state fire marshal to send firefighters from all over Oregon to help local crews during a fire emergency.

The State Fire Marshal's "red team" was released at noon Wednesday, leaving local fire departments to protect homes along the fires' perimeters.

Fire line backed up with water hoses now encircles both fires and the only hot spots are deep in the interior of the burned areas, Ballou said.

ODF crews, contractors and inmate crews are extinguishing those hot spots, but small columns of smoke may continue to be visible inside the burned area over the next days.

Both fires should be contained by 6 p.m. Thursday evening, Ballou said.

"Crews feel like they are ahead of schedule," he said.

No injuries worse than the occasional bee sting, blister or turned ankle had been reported among firefighters, Ballou said.

Bruhns, who is an excavator, said he is not worried that the charred area will cause serious erosion come winter.

"There is enough rock in the ground up there that it will hold everything in place," he said.

The fire is being investigated by ODF, Medford Fire Department and the Medford Police Department.

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