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Increased temps bring renewed fire risk

State forestry officials say a new wave of hot weather has raised fire danger levels close to where they were a month ago, prompting local agencies to retain their firefighting resources for at least a bit longer.

The National Weather Service has forecast a high of 100 degrees on Friday in Medford, in the midst of a string of mid-90s days. Officials have said the temperatures are 15 to 20 degrees above normal for this time of year, following recent highs as low as 69 degrees on Friday, Sept. 4.

"Whatever gains we've made in past weeks, they're going to seem like a memory," said Brian Ballou, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Ballou said the heat wave is likely to dry forest fuels to the same dangerous levels that sparked major fires earlier in the summer. "Here in the heart of the Rogue Valley, we didn't really get any rain," he said.

He said the area is also starting to pick up some moderate winds which could also drive fire behavior over the next few days.

Ballou said ODF's contracts for the two firefighting helicopters it's been using locally were about to expire, but the agency decided to renew them in light of the possibility of further fires. "We've extended them at least through the end of this week," he said, adding that ODF could extend the contracts further if necessary.

Weather officials have said summer 2015 is Medford's hottest since temperature records started being kept in 1911. Two major fires in Southern Oregon,  the 26,000-acre Stouts fire east of Canyonville and the 16,000-acre National Creek Complex near Crater Lake, have tied up firefighting resources for more than a month and flooded the Rogue Valley with smoke for weeks on end. 

Ballou said that even through the recent periods of mild weather, Jackson County has remained at Industrial Fire Precaution Level 3, requiring the shutdown of power tools and heavy equipment between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. on local forest lands.

While the Stouts fire is believed to have been caused by a resident using a lawnmower in violation of fire season equipment restrictions, the National Creek fires and many of the smaller blazes that flared up in the region this summer are believed to have been caused by dry lightning.

"One nice thing about September is we don't usually get much lightning," Ballou said, adding that when the valley does experience thunderstorms in the fall, they're usually accompanied by rain.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.