Firefighters rushed Friday to snuff out more than 75 fires caused by an early-morning lightning storm in southwest Oregon, hoping to prevent a huge blaze from erupting and racing through the parched woodlands.
As the pre-dawn storm rumbled across portions of Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties, leaving fires scattered throughout the region, fire officials deployed ground crews, smokejumpers, rappellers, engine crews, air tankers and helicopters with buckets to stop the fires from making a run.
Additional fires are expected to be discovered over the weekend as firefighters search for more "smokes" from small fires that are still smoldering and have yet to flare up.
"The fire potential is extreme," said Paul Galloway, spokesman for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, where at least four fires were burning, including the 40-acre Labrador fire a few miles out of Selma in the Illinois Valley.
"It's very dry out there," he added. "We've had a long period of above-normal temperatures with low humidity."
As a result, the forest fuels are dry as dust, ripe for an explosive wildfire, officials warned.
Roughly 60 fires are burning in Douglas County, with all but 10 west of Interstate 5. The remainder are in northern Jackson and northwestern Josephine counties, with the largest in those counties being the Labrador fire, officials said.
At least two fires burning in Douglas County, however, had exceeded 100 acres by late Friday afternoon, officials said.
"We were fortunate to get so many people and air tankers as quickly as we did," observed Brian Ballou, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District, which includes Jackson and Josephine counties.
By late Friday afternoon, about 15 small fires had been found on ODF-protected land in the two counties, he said.
"We're going to be looking for smokes through the weekend and will likely find more out there," he said.
Many of the fires are in remote, rugged areas that create additional challenges for firefighters already battling extreme heat and dry conditions, officials said.
"That's how it works. Lightning doesn't land in convenient places," said Ballou, a veteran firefighter. "It seems like there is always a long hike in, and a cliff involved.
"We've got enough helicopters and people to take a good whack at this," he said earlier in the day. "Whether we are completely successful remains to be seen. We have nothing real big yet, but they are scattered all over the place.
All fire agencies in the region are cooperating to stop the blazes before they spread through the abnormally dry forestlands, he said.
Because of the extreme conditions, there is potential for a large fire to emerge from the smaller fires, warned Jim Whittington, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, where some 20 fires have been found. That includes land protected by ODF fire crews.
"A lot of them are along the border between Douglas and Josephine counties," he said. "All of those are relatively small now. Nothing is getting up and moving yet."
In Medford, the temperature hit 102 degrees late Friday afternoon but was expected to crest in the mid-90s today, with winds expected to gust up to 20 mph.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.