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More smoke and stingy fire activity expected Sunday

Smoke wafting off the Happy Camp Complex fires filled and darkened the Rogue Valley on Saturday, and don't expect it to clear up on Sunday.

"We should be pretty smoky again," said John Lovegrove, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Medford.

Lovegrove said the smoke could clear the valley by Monday if favorable winds stay as predicted.  

Gusts of 15 mph and low humidity added up to a bad combination for crews fighting the Happy Camp Complex fires in Siskiyou County and the 790 fire burning about 10 miles southeast of Prospect in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

As of late Saturday, the Happy Camp Complex had grown to 88,546 acres and cost $51.5 million to fight so far, according to U.S. Forest Service. The fires are about 25 percent contained. About 2,679 firefighters are working to put out the flames.

Saturday, the 790 fire jumped fire lines and ran for 500 to 600 acres, bringing its total to about 2,900 acres, said Howard Hunter, a public information officer assigned to the fire.

The fire grew almost exclusively to the southwest, he said, and containment is less that 50 percent. About 660 firefighters are battling the blaze.

"It's going to take some work, and they're in planning mode again," Hunter said.

Two Boeing DC-10 air tankers, nine other planes and 10 helicopters bombarded the fire Saturday  with water and retardant as it crept closer to burning over the the western wilderness boundary.

In an effort to stall the aggressive fire, which was fanned by dry easterly wind, several retardant drops were authorized on strategic ridgetops inside the wilderness, Hunter said.

"We did everything we could to avoid using the retardant inside the wilderness ... it wasn't an easy decision, but they felt like it was the right one at the time," he said. "They're trying to herd this fire to where we can better deal with it."

Saturday's fire activity, which included several spot fires, put off a massive plume of smoke, though it was drifting away from the Rogue Valley.

"We're still trying to hang on to many portions of this fire," Hunter said.

Westerly winds switching through the afternoon to northwesterly winds are expected Sunday on the 790 fire, said Hunter and Lovegrove.

Sunday is expected to be challenging, Hunter said, and smoke blowing off the Happy Camp Complex could hamper firefighters' efforts.

"If smoke from the Happy Camp fire drifts this way, it could impact our airspace and make it more difficult for our aircraft to work," he said. "It's still inside our east and west contingency lines ... but we don't have secure north and south lines."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or swheeler@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/swhlr.