UPDATED MAPS INCLUDED — A storm front expected to move into Southern Oregon Wednesday could bring a double-edged sword to residents and firefighters — less smoke but possible new lightning fires for already overtaxed crews.
Winds gusting up to 20 mph are expected to loosen the insidious grip of smoke and ash choking the Medford-Ashland area, which could see air quality upgrade from "very unhealthy" Tuesday to "unhealthy for sensitive groups" by Thursday.
This classic late-summer storm moving in from the southeast is also expected to bring pockets of rain of up to a quarter-inch, helping create more favorable conditions for firefighters on the ground, according to the National Weather Service.
But the weather service has issued a red-flag warning for hazardous weather from 11 a.m. Wednesday through 11 p.m. Thursday because the storm cells are also expected to bring lightning outside of the rainy areas.
“There’ll be good and bad aspects of the weather over the next few days,” weather service meteorologist Misty Firmin said. “While we get some rain, we’ll have to worry about new fires as well.”
The storm front of Wednesday and Thursday will come courtesy of Tropical Storm Lidia that’s sitting and spinning air off Mexico's Baja California peninsula, with pockets of rain bringing anywhere from one-tenth to one-quarter inch where it happens to fall, Firmin said.
“There’ll be some rain,” Firmin said. “It just depends upon where they pop up.”
That kind of precipitation would assist on-the-ground forces spending most of their attention on creating new fire lines, strengthening old ones while deploying water from the ground or the air to snuff out hot spots.
The U.S. Forest Service reported Tuesday that rain amounts expected are nowhere near the levels needed to snuff out the region’s myriad lightning fires still raging out of control in nearly a quarter-million acres of land, with crews now finding themselves vying for nature’s affections.
“We’d love to see some rain, especially a quarter-inch or so,” said Sierra Hellstrom, spokeswoman for the 27,500-acre Miller Complex fire burning in the Applegate. “You don’t wish ill on another fire, but I think everyone is hoping rains come their way.”
Wishing aside, Miller Complex incident commanders are creating contingency plans for dealing with dry- or wet-lightning scenarios during the storm, including identifying which of the fire’s 594 personnel will break away from their duties to directly attack any new, small lightning fires, Hellstrom said.
“That group is ready to mobilize at all times,” Hellstrom said. “We’re already spread pretty thin. To divide it up even more is a cause for concern.”
The Miller Complex, Chetco Bar and High Cascades Complex fires each ticked up in size Tuesday.
The Chetco Bar fire was listed Tuesday at 176,770 acres, with almost 1,600 people battling the area's largest fire as it crept east toward Cave Junction. Firefighters spent much of Tuesday hitting hot spots and spot fires with helicopters cleared to fly thanks to reduced smoke levels.
"We didn't have that for a few days," fire spokesman Terry Krasco said. "We really needed that support. We didn't have anything to use because we couldn't see."
Crews also reinforced old fire lines carved during the Biscuit fire 15 years ago and conducted burnout operations between fire lines to rob the encroaching wildfire of potential fuel.
"It's using fire to put fire out," Krasco said.
The Miller Complex, at 25 percent contained, was the most corralled fire of the three, ahead of the High Cascades Complex at 20 percent and the Chetco Bar fire at 10 percent, according to the Forest Service.
The High Cascades Complex was burning in 38,000 acres in and around Crater Lake National Park, causing another temporary closure Tuesday to the park's North Entrance and West Rim Drive and more of the Pacific Crest Trail to be off-limits to hikers.
Residents continue to grapple with thick smoke carrying fine particulate matter that threaten hearts and lungs, posing short- and long-term health impacts.
The numbers of masked Medfordites grew by 2,000 Monday and Tuesday, thanks to AllCare Health's distribution of free masks for those venturing outside.
"We're shaking every tree for more and I literally ran to the pain store to get some more," AllCare Vice President Josh Balloch said.
AllCare expects to have more masks on Thursday at its Medford office, 3629 Aviation Way. It can be reached at 541-734-5520.
Balloch said residents should take seriously doctors' recommendations to avoid smoke exposure by either leaving the area or staying inside as much as possible and employ cleansing air filters there.
Still, some residents continue to flirt with serious health problems from particulate inhalation.
"Every time I see one of these kids riding his bike outside I want to yell at him, 'Go inside and play video games,'" Balloch said.
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.
Chetco 9-5 by Mail Tribune on Scribd
High Cascades 9-5 by Mail Tribune on Scribd
Miller Complex 9-5 by Mail Tribune on Scribd