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Ash in Rogue Valley is from 5,000-acre Seiad Valley wildfire

Steep terrain, still winds and tinder woods from years of drought helped the fast-moving Gap fire roar to more than 5,000 acres near Northern California's Seiad Valley, triggering evacuations and unconfirmed reports of burned houses.

Fire crews are working in the remote area today with little communication options as they attempt to assess the damage already caused in the two-day-old fire that continues to rain ash and pour smoke into the Rogue Valley.

The fire, which ignited from an unknown source Saturday evening, is burning unchecked on Forest Service land about 18 miles northwest of Yreka, and it more than tripled in size since late Sunday evening, according to the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

"The team that took over this fire this morning is gathering intelligence and looking at what's going to give us the best chance of success to get a line around this fire," fire spokesman Josh Veal said late this afternoon.

The Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office and firefighting crews were attempting to assess whether and how many structures have been burned, Veal said. However, a lack of cell coverage in the steep areas means the crews are working with little or no communications with fire crews staging at nearby Happy Camp, he said. 

Sheriff's teams began evacuation notifications Sunday in the Hamburg and Horse Creek areas, but under California law they are not mandatory, fire spokesman Duane Lyon said.

"The doors have been knocked on, the people have been notified, but there's no way to track how many people have left," Lyon said.

The fire has eclipsed 5,000 acres, but there was no new estimate on its size late this afternoon, Veal said. However, flames racing up trees to their crowns have sent embers flying forward into forested areas with large amounts of down woody material ripe for burning, Veal said.

"The fire throws out spots and they're finding very receptive fuel," Veal said.

The National Weather Service said ash from the fire has been raining on Medford and Ashland since Sunday and was forecast to continue today. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reported that air-quality in Medford and Ashland deteriorated from "good" this morning to "moderate" by late afternoon.

However, the winds from the southwest that have been pushing the smoke into the Rogue Valley are forecast to shift Tuesday, meteorologist Brad Schaaf said. The wind change could mean that smoke hugging the Rogue Valley floor could rise, but mixing air will create conditions Tuesday that are similar to today.

The fire is located in the Klamath National Forest at the top of O'Neil Ridge and is burning east, according to the Incident Information System. It was listed this afternoon as zero percent contained, and an estimated 641 personnel are assigned to the blaze as an incident management team takes the reins on the fire-suppression effort.

The fire's main activity has been east and south, Lyon said, starting about 18 miles northwest of Yreka.

Scott Bar is on notice for evacuation, with residents under advisory to be ready to leave. Lyon said Highway 96 is closed between its juncture with Highway 263 and Scott River Road. An evacuation shelter has been established at the Siskiyou Golden Fairgrounds, 1712 Fairlane Road, Yreka.

While the fire's origin remains under investigation, the Weather Service reported no lightning activity in that area for the past several days, Schaaf said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Flames from the Gap fire can be seen in this photo taken Sunday near Seaid Valley, Calif. Facebook photo by Scott Morgan via Yreka News