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Embers from controlled burn ignite hillside fire

A fire erupted Sunday morning in the hills above Lithia Park when embers from an earlier controlled burn were stirred up in the unseasonably warm, windy and dry weather, fire officials said.

The fire was knocked down considerably by sunset Sunday and crews were continuing to monitor it today, said Capt. Bob Cockell of Ashland Fire & Rescue.

Firefighters noticed a thin trail of smoke coming from the Ashland Watershed — the site of a Jan. 9 controlled burn — at about 10:30 a.m. Sunday and notified the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the burns, Cockell said.

By the time the Forest Service could make it through the "literally straight up" terrain, the flames were visible from the valley floor and the fire had belched smoke across the mountain, Cockell said.

Forest Service officials could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Usually controlled burns — which leave hot embers behind — are safe in the winter, due to the typically cold, wet weather, Cockell said.

"There could have been embers down in the logs or something," he said. "They don't put it all out because this time of year it just goes out. When you have weather like we did yesterday, it's pretty odd."

The fire department fielded about 35 calls from concerned locals Sunday, and Ashland's 9-1-1 dispatch center was also busy answering phones, Cockell said.

"We appreciate the vigilance of citizens who give us a call to make sure it doesn't go unnoticed," he said.

More warm weather

The unusually warm, dry weather that settled over the Rogue Valley on Sunday should stay through Wednesday, said Michael O'Brien, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Medford office.

The freak weather pattern was caused by high pressure air that has hovered over the valley since last week, originally producing cold, foggy conditions, O'Brien said. As the sun evaporated the fog and warmed the ground, the valley floor grew hotter and drier, giving way to Sunday's weather anomaly, he said.

"The reason we finally warmed up on Sunday so much was because the fog was reduced to such a small amount that there was no significant pool of cold air left," O'Brien said.

Temperatures should peak in the low 60s today and Tuesday, and dip a few degrees Wednesday, while still remaining above the normal high this time of year of 49 degrees, O'Brien said.

By Thursday, temperatures should be back to normal, and the next cold front will likely arrive on Sunday, O'Brien said.

Staff writer Hannah Guzik can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.