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Getting a jump on new fires

Tracking down new fires started by new rounds of lightning in Jackson County is proving a challenge for wildland firefighters because of the smoke strangling the region.

Typically, Oregon Department of Forestry firefighters will scatter throughout Jackson and Josephine counties to get a better jump on possible lightning-sparked blazes. When a strike touches down, agency officials get a latitude and longitude on their lightning tracker and dispatch the closest engine crew. When that crew rolls up to the general area, they'll often have a column of smoke to guide them in the rest of the way like a sooty lighthouse beacon.

"When we have this overwhelming amount of smoke ... it makes it twice to three times as difficult," ODF public information officer Melissa Cano said Thursday. "We still have firefighters out there right now, searching, and they have been searching all night."

By Thursday afternoon, ODF firefighters had found about 10 new fire starts following a volley of lightning strikes overnight and during the day.

Most of those — flareups near Cave Junction, Butte Falls, the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument boundary at Parker Creek and Lost Creek Reservoir — have been 100 percent mopped and lined. The largest, dubbed the East Antelope fire, grew to about 3 acres in size. The fire started six miles east of Roxy Ann Peak on Bureau of Land Management lands.

From 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, 110 lighting strikes were recorded, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Charles Smith. In that same period, 64 strikes were recorded in Josephine County, 52 in Klamath County and 77 in Douglas County.

"We saw a pretty healthy amount of strikes across all of our counties," Smith said.

Fire officials will continue to patrol for new fires, assisted by an aircraft that will utilize thermal imaging technology when flying conditions allow.

Most of the Jackson County lightning strikes touched down east of Medford, though some also touched down in the Applegate in the same area as the Miller Complex, weather officials said.

"I wouldn't say they were co-located, but they were relatively close," meteorologist Brad Schaaf said.

The erratic path of the storm clouds meant rainfall measurements varied in the region, according to meteorologist Marc Spilde. Most places in the Medford area had recorded from a tenth to two-tenths of an inch as of Thursday evening, with the official reading from the Medford airport at 0.12 of an inch. Grants Pass recorded 0.11 of an inch, and Illinois Valley recorded 0.83 of an inch. In western Siskiyou County, where most of the complexes are, rainfall ranged between a quarter to half an inch.

There is a slight chance of rain today with a possible "brief and slight" improvement on the smoky conditions into Saturday, before temperatures warm back up, according to meteorologist Ryan Sandler.

The 1,698 firefighters combating the Chetco Bar fire, Oregon's largest at nearly 177,000 acres in size, benefited from the cooler, wetter weather, according to the Information Incident System website. They will continue to construct more firelines and clear brush to strengthen existing firelines below the blaze's southwest perimeter.

"The fire's more of a crawl right now," said fire public information officer Steve Pomerleau.

The blaze remains at 5 percent containment.

The High Cascades Complex, made up of multiple fires near Crater Lake, remains at 18 percent containment and is 52,775 acres in size. The Miller Complex, burning in the Applegate 17 miles east of Cave Junction, is 25 percent contained and 32,718 acres.

Air quality for the past 24 hours at Cave Junction, Applegate, Grants Pass, Medford and Ashland sites remained at "very unhealthy" levels Thursday morning, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's Air Quality Index data. Shady Cove was at "unhealthy."

— Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Chetco Bar 9-7

Miller Complex 9-7

High Cascades 9-5

A burnout operation lights up the night Tuesday at the High Cascades Complex near Crater Lake. [InciWeb photo]