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Crews battle to contain fast-growing blaze

Fire crews battled wind, heat and dry weather Monday evening in a struggle to contain the fast-growing Cleveland Ridge fire north of Shady Cove.

Beginning around 4 p.m., the blaze swelled rapidly from about 10 acres to 180 acres by 8 p.m. Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest District spokesperson Melissa Cano said the rate of growth started to slow by around 9 p.m. after an afternoon of surging growth resulted in the ODF calling for support.

"This is the biggest fire in the district for 2016 fire season," Cano said.

ODF initially responded to the blaze with an air tanker, three helicopters, several engines and three 10-person crews and requested backup. The Rogue Valley Structural Strike Team, which consists of Jackson County Fire Districts 3 and 5, Medford Fire-Rescue, Ashland Fire-Rescue and Jacksonville Fire Department, responded.

As of 9 p.m. Monday, ODF did not have an estimate of how many crews, engines and aircraft were on scene.

"Everyone just kept on rolling in. It's close to all fire agencies from Jackson County," Cano said.

A map provided by the ODF showed the fire originated at the junction of West Fork Trail Creek Road and Romaine Creek Road and spread down the northeast side of the ridge. Cano said the cause of the fire was unknown and under investigation. Hot, dry weather this past weekend may have contributed.

"The conditions are right for fires to start," she said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Charles Smith said there have been no lightning strikes on the west side of the Cascades recently, though the east side did see some lightning during the past week.

Smith said conditions in the Rogue Valley border on what qualifies for a red flag warning, indicating "explosive growth" for fires. A relative humidity of 13 percent, high temperatures and a wind speed of 10 knots have been conducive to the Cleveland Ridge growth.

"It's going to grow pretty easily," Smith said. These conditions can facilitate spotting, where fire "jumps" to other locations when a strong wind carries the embers downwind. 

"Since the sun went down, it's slowed down significantly," Cano said. The fire continued to grow, but the ODF was holding the estimate at 180 acres.

A level-I evacuation was issued Monday evening to residents of Taylor Road, which parallels nearby Tiller Trail Highway 227. The notice prompted residents to "be ready to evacuate," though some residents had already self-evacuated.

Cano said ODF could not predict a timeline for containment, but crews would be working through the night to combat the flames.

A helicopter drops water on the Cleveland Ridge fire burning west of Shady Cove. ODF video still