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'Tough firefight'

Changing winds that could help firefighters keep a blaze near Trail in check later this week prevented them from delivering the final blow Tuesday.

"It makes for a tough firefight," Oregon Department of Forestry spokeswoman Melissa Cano said.

Unpredictable winds means firefighters can't use burnout operations to rob the Cleveland Ridge fire of fuel that could escalate the flames to treetops, said ODF spokesman Brian Ballou. But forecasts call for northerly winds Wednesday and Thursday that will push the flames back into lined areas, giving firefighters the advantage.

The fire started late Monday at the junction of West Fork Trail Creek and Romine Creek roads, roughly five miles north of Shady Cove, and is burning in private timber and Bureau of Land Management land. The fire was spotting into an unlined northern flank Tuesday afternoon, Cano said. 

Lining that northern flank in dense forest proved challenging, Ballou said.

"There's not much in the way of good access," he said.

At least it's burning away from the 40 homes and structures that were threatened shortly after the fire started, Ballou and Cano said, but residents along Highway 227 still could be given Level 1 evacuation notices — be ready to leave — at any time.

"The fire seems to be spotting away from the homes," Cano said.

Nearly 70 percent of the fire on its south, west and east sides was lined as of 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Ballou said.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, but there has been no recent lightning in the area. Shortly after sparking at about 4 p.m. Monday, the blaze gained momentum when it shot down the northeast side of a ridge. The fire grew to nearly 200 acres by nightfall, to 250 acres by Tuesday morning. A containment estimate was not available.

Three helicopters targeted the northern flank Tuesday afternoon, attacking flames in remote areas 324 gallons at a time. Ballou said the goal was to prevent the brush fire from growing to the point that trees became a fuel source.

"They've been making some progress, but that's a tough go of it," Ballou said.

Hazy skies are anticipated in Medford and Ashland Wednesday and Thursday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Schaaf. Areas nearer to the fire, such as Shady Cove and White City, will see denser smoke. 

“There might be some conditions and smell of smoke, but it won’t be like what we’ve seen last summer,” Schaaf said.

Smoke from the Cleveland Ridge fire and two other blazes in the state, the Campbell fire near Salem and a new fire near Lincoln City, is being carried by south and southwest winds to create a haze over the Rogue Valley, Schaaf said.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality data showed Shady Cove, Medford and Ashland had "moderate" air quality for the past 24 hours. Talent and the Applegate were still at "good."

Forecasters expect dry conditions and temperatures rising to the high 90s by the end of the week, Schaaf said.

Portions of West Fork Trail Creek Road were closed Tuesday. Other area roads remain open for now, but ODF crews ask motorists to be cautious in the area. 

Ballou described the firefight Monday night as "a pretty good night." Firefighters were helped by cooler temperatures, and bulldozers made good progress on fire lines on the east and west flanks, and to the south in steeper terrain where hand crews dug lines to defend the 40 or so structures threatened nearby.

A structural protection strike team made up of crews from Jackson County Fire District No. 3, Jackson County Fire District No. 4, Jackson County Fire District No. 5, Medford Fire-Rescue, the Jacksonville Fire Department and Ashland Fire & Rescue were at the ready Tuesday. ODF crews were also assisted by Oregon Department of Corrections inmate crews.

An old mill pond near the fire's southwest corner has made it convenient for aircraft dousing the flames with water buckets from above. Property records show the mill to be owned by the Boardmaster Corp.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or by email at nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Ryan Pfeil can be reached at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

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A helicopter working with the Oregon Department of Forestry fights the Cleveland Ridge fire. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
A helicopter drops water from an old mill pond nearby on the Cleveland Ridge fire Tuesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch