Firefighters battled multiple grass fires Tuesday

Ryan Pfeil, Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.
·4 min read

Apr. 7—The Oregon Department of Forestry fought two grass fires in Jackson County Tuesday afternoon and evening, nearly a month before fire season typically gets underway.

Fire crews from Oregon Department of Forestry and Greensprings Rural Fire District responded to a two-acre fire in the 15000 block of Highway 66, two miles west of Pinehurst, at about 3 p.m., according to ODF spokesperson Natalie Weber. Crews were able to use a road in the area as a "natural line" around the fire, with crews working to close the loop with hand lines.

At 5:22 p.m., Rogue River Fire District responded to a grass fire in the 3700 block of Wards Creek Road, northeast of Rogue River. The first crews on scene found flames advancing up a hill through brush and timber behind a home, according to a news release.

Rogue River fire requested a third alarm — the second time it has done so in less than a week — to receive additional aid. No evacuations were required, and no structures were threatened, but access to the fire was difficult.

"It was burning in very steep terrain. That's really how it carried so well," Weber said. "The winds just funnel through that area."

ODF responded to the scene, with additional personnel from the Evans Valley Fire District, Grants Pass Department of Public Safety, Rural Metro Fire Department, Jackson County Fire District No. 3, Medford Fire-Rescue, Illinois Valley Fire District, and Ashland Fire & Rescue.

Forestry crews typically utilize retardant drops from airplanes and water bucket drops from helicopters in fires that are harder to access, Weber said. But aid from the air wasn't available Tuesday, meaning firefighters could only battle it from the ground.

"It was not easily accessible at all," Weber said.

"Access to the house and behind the house was easy, but then it goes uphill into heavily wooded brush and trees, and it's steep and rough terrain," said Rogue River fire Chief Mike Hammond. "We're just not able to move through that as quickly as the fire moved through it."

Crews contained the bulk of the fire, which grew to about 10 acres, Weber said. ODF personnel and a bulldozer remained on scene through the night snuffing out multiple spot fires, each about an acre in size, Weber said.

The cause of both fires remained under investigation.

ODF crews had also responded to a 7-acre brush fire in Josephine County Monday evening. The blaze was located near Selma in the Thompson Creek area.

On Wednesday, afternoon, Rogue Valley fire agencies responded to another blaze in the 400 block of Orr Drive, near the Central Point area. Burn pile remnants that had died down suddenly flared back up again because of wind, Jackson County Fire District No. 3 battalion chief Bryan Cohee said.

The blaze burned through some blackberry bushes, drawing a three-agency response from Fire District 3, Medford Fire-Rescue, and ODF. Collectively, three engines and four brush rigs responded, Cohee said.

"It was running, but there was enough of a break between the blackberry bushes and the homes to where it was never a significant threat," Cohee said.

Officials estimate the fire grew to about 1 1/2 acres crews contained it.

Officials from ODF's Southwest Division, which protects 1.8 million acres in Jackson and Josephine counties, have said fire season will start no later than May 1 for the past couple years. It's yet not known if it will be declared earlier than that for 2021-22, Weber said.

The National Weather Service said dry weather is expected to persist for at least the next 10 days, with a potential pattern shift to more wet conditions mid-month.

"I'd say for the next 10 days (we're) unlikely to see significant rain," meteorologist Shad Keene said.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners declared a drought last week because of unusually low water levels in area reservoirs.

Fire officials recommended anyone considering conducting a debris burn on their property to delay it for a bit because of a recent lack of rainfall.

"Fires are taking off a little bit faster than people anticipate, I think," Weber said. "That's just something to keep in mind."

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanpfeil.