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Smoke expected to linger at least through Wednesday

Smoke from California wildfires drifting into southwest Oregon has prompted the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to issue an air quality advisory for Jackson County through at least Wednesday, according to Jackson County Health & Human Services.

“With the current weather patterns and wildfire activity in California, Jackson County will see intermittent levels of smoke that are moderate and unhealthy for sensitive groups,” a news release said. “Ashland may experience higher levels of smoke than other parts of the county.”

Klamath County is included in the advisory. Health officials noted that the presence of wildfire smoke during a pandemic can worsen the symptoms associated with COVID-19. Patients recovering from the illness are at higher risk from exposure to wildfire smoke, as are people younger than 18 or older than 65, people with chronic health conditions such as heart and lung disease, asthma and diabetes, homeless people and those who work outdoors. Exposure to smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

“There’s no evidence that poor air quality makes it more likely to get COVID, but certainly if you’ve got a serious lung disease and the air quality is poor, it’s going to make things a lot worse,” said Jackson County medical director Dr. Jim Shames.

On Monday, California continued its fight against nearly two dozen major lightning-sparked wildfires across the state, according to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. That doesn’t include hundreds of additional fires the state has been working to contain since recent lightning storms pummeled the landscape. The biggest of those blazes, the LNU Lightning Complex burning west of Sacramento, had grown to more than 350,000 acres.

“It’s still the second-largest wildfire in our state’s history,” Berlant said in a Facebook video update.

Public health officials urge residents to stay indoors as much as possible to avoid smoke. Unlike past smoky years, purchasing masks that filter the fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke is not recommended, as such masks are needed by health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Staying indoors is the best defense.

The intensity of smoke from California wildfires drifting into the Rogue Valley will vary throughout the day through at least Wednesday, with the murkiest conditions expected during the afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.

Mornings are expected to begin with “moderate” air quality, possibly dipping as low as the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Shad Keene. The smoke is expected to worsen through the afternoon and early evening hours, as surface heating will force some of the smoke at higher elevations to mix down with the lower-elevation haze.

“It’s up and down currents, and it starts to blend in some of that smoke above the surface,” Keene said. “Same reason you encounter turbulence on an airplane on a hot day.”

Evening cooling and — fingers crossed — breezes should thin some of the smoke accumulation.

“[On Sunday] that really didn’t happen,” Keene said. “If we don’t really clear out, if it accumulates enough in the valley, it could kind of trend worse each day. So we’re hoping for a breeze in the evening so it can kind of flush out that low-level smoke.”

By 8 p.m. Sunday, the air quality in Medford had deteriorated to “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” seeing only a slight overnight improvement, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Air Quality Index. As of late Monday morning, the city and other monitoring stations in Talent, Ashland, the Applegate, Shady Cove and Cave Junction remained at “moderate,” DEQ data showed.

Areas of higher elevation and east of the Southern Oregon Cascades are getting hit even worse. Crater Lake National Park air quality had worsened to “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” while Klamath Falls had dropped to “unhealthy” Monday morning.

A red flag warning was put in place for a large swathe of Southern and Central Oregon Monday because of lightning in the forecast. A sliver of southern and eastern Jackson County was included in the coverage area, though most of the potential for new thunderstorms is east of the Cascades, Keene said. Weather Service officials also forecast a slight chance for thunderstorms Tuesday in the region.

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneWildfire smoke settles Monday in the Rogue Valley .