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Air quality declines as wildfires grow

Air quality dipped Thursday in Jackson and Josephine counties as a growing number of wildfires continued to burn in the region.

On Thursday morning, Medford and Shady Cove air quality had dropped into the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Air Quality Index. Ashland, Applegate and Grants Pass had “moderate” air quality. Cave Junction remained in the “good” category.

The readings are measured by the presence of PM 2.5, microscopic pollutant particles smaller than the diameter of a human hair that can cause serious health problems.

The air-smothering haze is coming from, well, pretty much everywhere. The 500-acre South Umpqua Complex, located on the Tiller Ranger District in Douglas County, Jackson County’s Wagner Complex and Hendrix fire, and Josephine County’s Garner Complex are all contributing. Also, two more fires have been reported in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Josephine County.

“We’re getting a bunch (of smoke) from all directions,” National Weather Service meteorologist Sven Nelaimischkies said. “The only direction that smoke isn’t coming from is the east.”

Lighter northwest winds are expected this weekend until about Sunday, Nelaimischkies added, when a weaker eastern flow is expected. That shift won’t be enough to drive the smoke out of the area.

The two fires in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness are the 586-acre Klondike fire and the 113-acre Granite fire, according to a news release. The fires were burning in the wilderness about 12 miles west of Selma, near the area where the 2017 Chetco Bar fire originated. Smokejumpers were pulled out of the fire areas because of the dangerous conditions, and fire commanders were planning to use retardant drops on the fires.

The Kalmiopsis fires grew Tuesday night when strong east winds caused them to breach containment lines. An incident command post is being set up at Lake Selmac near Selma.

Nearby, crews are battling the 767-acre Natchez fire, located about 15 miles southwest of Cave Junction. The fire is straddling the Oregon-California border. A power line that runs from Cave Junction to Happy Camp, California, is threatened, fire officials said.

Area health and fire agencies, including Jackson County Health & Human Services and the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, have released tips in English and Spanish for dealing with the smoke. Key tips to deal with the smoke include drinking plenty of water, wearing a certified mask to limit particle exposure, and limiting outdoor exposure.

Fire crews continue to combat numerous area blazes:

The Hendrix fire, burning near Hells Peak southeast of Ruch, had grown to 717 acres by Thursday morning and was considered 10 percent contained. Most of the recent growth was to the southeast, due to numerous spot fires. Crews are focused on that southeast portion, with plans to hit it “as hard as we can” with water drops from helicopters and hot shot crews, according to fire public information officer Julie Knobel.

“That’s where we’re finding the best success — do bucket drops and then send in hand crews to strengthen the lines,” Knobel said.

Initial attempts at airplane-delivered retardant drops fizzled last week, as the dense forest canopy prevented much of the retardant from reaching the ground.

Evacuation notices due to the fire were still in effect Thursday afternoon. Properties at 16001 Wagner Creek Road and the Wrangle Campground at 23000 Little Applegate Road are under a Level 3 “go” evacuation alert, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Thirty-one addresses in the Dog Fork Community from Little Applegate Road to west of Yale Creek Road are under a Level 2 “be set” evacuation alert. Those addresses are from 3975 to 4075 Dog Fork Road and from 3812 to 6969 Yale Creek Road, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Two more properties, 3434 McDonald Creek Road and 16099 Wagner Creek Road are also under Level 2 “be set” evacuation notices. Those properties are along Wagner Creek road south of Wagner Gap to U.S. Forest Service Road 20, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The Wagner Complex, which comprises all current fires burning within Jackson County on Oregon Department of Forestry-protected lands, was most recently listed at 250 acres and 50 percent containment. The fires within that complex included the 121-acre Green Mountain fire, located 5 miles east of Eagle Point and considered 70 percent contained Thursday evening; the 32-acre Sterling Creek fire, located seven miles southwest of Jacksonville and considered 70 percent contained; and about 10 small fires in the Trail Creek and Elk Creek drainages, totaling about 20 acres.

The Garner Complex, consisting of dozens of fires in Josephine County, was listed at 1,130 acres and 8 percent contained. More than 900 firefighters were assigned to the complex, which includes the Grave Creek fires, Spencer Creek fires and Pleasant Creek fire.

Addresses on Pleasant Creek Road between 5047 and 7948 are under a level 2 “get set” advisory because of the Garner complex. Seven individual addresses in the 6500 and 6600 blocks of that road received Level 3 notices in person Wednesday due to their proximity to the fire, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Department said.

The Taylor Creek fire in Josephine County had grown to 338 acres as of Thursday evening, with a partial control line constructed. The fire led the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office to issue Level 2 evacuation warnings to the northwest of Robertson Bridge, 13 miles downriver from Grants Pass, including Pickett Creek Road and all smaller roads in the vicinity.

The Spencer Creek Complex includes three fires burning about four miles from Williams. The largest was estimated Wednesday at 212 acres.

Gov. Kate Brown has declared a fire emergency, noting that an estimated 200 wildfires were burning statewide.

The Oregon Army National Guard will provide two CH-47 Chinook helicopters and two HH-60M Black Hawk helicopters equipped with Bambi water buckets, according to a press release from the Oregon Military Department. An additional HH-60M Black Hawk helicopter will be on standby for medical evacuations, and a UH-72 Lakota helicopter will assist with aerial spotting.

Other National Guard assets and personnel could be activated if needed, including teams of service members to provide traffic assistance and help firefighting ground crews. Oregon National Guard ground troops have not yet been requested but are available if wildfire conditions worsen, the release said.

“We’re fully engaged from southwest Oregon up to northeast Oregon,” said Doug Grafe, fire protection chief with the Oregon Department of Forestry. He said air quality issues like those experienced last summer are expected for the state.

On Thursday, Oregon Parks & Recreation banned campfires and open flames in all state parks because of the declaration. It includes wood, charcoal and other flame sources that cannot be turned off with a valve, according to a news release. Liquid fuel stoves or other cooking devices that can be turned off with a valve are still permitted, but cannot be left unattended, the release said.

That ban is expected to last at least a week.

On Friday, the fire danger will rise to “extreme” on lands protected by ODF. That means the use of power saws, cutting, grinding and welding metal, the mowing of dry or dead grass or the operation of any other spark-emitting internal combustion engine is prohibited. Debris and barrel burning are prohibited. Smoking is prohibited while traveling, except in vehicles on improved roads, in boats on the water or at designated locations.

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com or at 541-776-4468. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.