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NWS warns that region faces wildfire threat

Facing a severe lack of moisture and expecting strong, gusty winds, the National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch for Thursday evening through Friday morning across southwestern Oregon.

The watch, issued Tuesday, warns the greatest danger for "rapid fire growth" will occur above 3,500 feet, but the advisory touches portions of the Rogue Valley floor, said Shad Keene, meteorologist with the weather service in Medford.

The last time the weather service issued a fire weather watch for the Rogue Valley during winter was 1998, Keene said.

"This is for the gusty winds and the low humidity in combination with the very dry fuels. The forest is dry. If there was a fire sparked, our primary concern is the potential for rapid fire growth," Keene said. "We may have had these types of winds already this winter, but it wasn't as dry. It's been such a long time since we've seen a lot of rain and we're expecting it to stay dry."

Keene said the weather service worked in partnership with land-management agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Oregon Department of Forestry, to determine the level of fire danger before releasing the advisory.

Strong winds out of the northeast could reach as high as 30 mph during the advisory, and humidity is expected to float between 20 and 30 percent.

"To have these sustained, long durations of low humidity during winter is unusual," Keene said. "It's more of a summertime type of phenomena."

Typically, humidity sticks around 50 percent during winter months in southwestern Oregon and jumps to 100 percent frequently as regular rain or snow falls.

This winter, moisture has been startlingly irregular, Keene said.

"We hope for a change in late January or early February, but even that is not certain," Keene said.

ODF spokesman Brian Ballou said he expects a busy fire season if winter weather continues its current course.

"People just need to be cautious with any open flame. It's one of those years where you have to be cautious with anything outdoors," Ballou said. "It's already really dry out there."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler 541-776-4471 or by email at samuelcwheeler@gmail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/swhlr.