Crews on fire watch

Ashland Fire and Rescue is on alert after lightning storms Tuesday night, and they expect another round of lightning with little precipitation later today.

"At this point we're not aware of any active fires burning in the Ashland area," Fire Chief Keith Woodley said. But with a red-flag warning from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. today, they aren't taking any chances, he said.

The Oregon Department of Forestry was expected to conduct flyovers around 9 a.m. today, he said, looking for smoke from "sleeper" fires, areas where small fires smolder in trees or logs. If those fires aren't caught early, they could spread easily once humidity drops in the afternoon.

The risk of fire increases with each additional day of lightning, Woodley said, "because you've got two days worth of potential fire starts."

Fire crews around the Rogue Valley are on alert because recent searing heat and dry conditions have left the area vulnerable to forest fires. But Woodley's team is less concerned with the heat, than they are with the rain because the risk of fire depends more upon humidity levels.

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A lightning arc strikes the sky over Ashland looking east from Walker Avenue, Tuesday night.

Photo by Orville Hector | Daily Tidings

Residents in three southern Oregon counties could easily see last night's storm, which had tremendous bolts flashing through the dark skies. Forecasters said 250 lightning strikes hit Jackson, Klamath and Siskiyou counties in a half-hour period around 10 p.m.

10:20 p.m., deafening thunder shook Medford, bringing a torrential downpour.

"It hit the eastern chunk of the county over near the Greensprings pretty hard," ODF spokesman Brian Ballou said. "The storm came up from California. From what we've heard, Yreka is getting hammered."

More than 27,000 Pacific Power customers from Gold Hill to White City lost power for about three hours during the storm. All the service was restored this morning, the Mail Tribune reported.

ODF crews responded to several calls of smoke sighted in the eastern portion of Jackson County during the storm, Ballou said.

ODF rolled into action at around 9 p.m. for a report of smoke seen near where Callahan's Lodge once stood off the Mount Ashland exit on Interstate 5, Ballou said.

No fires were found, but the crew remained in the spot should one ignite in the heavily forested area.

"We also sent some crews to the Greensprings to stand watch," Ballou added.

Darkness stymied the search for potential fires, forcing ODF crews to hunker down in their office in Central Point to await the morning, when the smoke would show itself, Ballou said.

The good news was the storm proved to be wetter than expected in parts of Jackson county. Although Ashland saw only a trace of rain, as much as a half-inch of rain fell in other parts of the county, said meteorologist Katie Burtis with the National Weather Service in Medford.

The storm rolled into the valley, breaking up into four cells as it entered Jackson County. The cell to the east proved to the most "electric," Burtis said.

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Lightning over Ashland Tuesday night.

Photo by Brad Knickerbocker | For the Tidings

The warm temperatures kept the storm from producing hail, bringing steady rain instead, Burtis reported.

"The 93 degree temperatures at 10 p.m. helped make one of the storm cells wet, which could help with the fires," Burtis said.

Meteorologists are expecting the thunderstorms to hang around today. The triple-digit heat appears over, but more scorching weather is in the forecast.

Medford's official thermometer climbed to 104 degrees Tuesday, four degrees short of the record for July 10 (set in 2002).

Meteorologist Mike Stavish said the daytime high should be around 96 degrees today and remain in the mid- to upper-90s through the rest of the week, but slide to around 90 degrees on Saturday.

Chris Conrad contributed to this report.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .

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