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40 mph winds drove fires across Jackson County's rain-starved terrain

Wind gusts that fed two ravenous wildfires Tuesday and Wednesday at opposite ends of the Rogue Valley reached 40 to 45 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

“The way the firefighters described it (Tuesday) was it caused waves of fire as the winds would push it,” said Rich Tyler, spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal, of the Almeda fire, which started in Ashland and advanced up the I-5 corridor.

The wind whipped across bone-dry terrain that hadn’t seen a drop of rain in 85 days, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Sandler. That’s the 10th-longest streak the city has seen in 109 years of record keeping, Sandler said.

“This time of year, the fuels are usually dry, but they’re extremely dry this year,” he said.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning earlier this week because of the extreme conditions. It lasted until Wednesday evening, as winds were expected to calm. Today and Friday will stay dry and warm, with temperatures staying in the high 90s, but winds should continue to lighten, the Weather Service said.

“It’s still going to be hot and dry,” Sandler emphasized, “so you don’t want to get a fire going anytime during the daytime.”

There’s a slight chance of rain for the area next Monday night and Tuesday, though the confidence is somewhat low, and humidity levels are expected to rise.

On Tuesday, the wind-driven flames destroyed dozens of homes and businesses in Talent and Phoenix. Numerous neighborhoods had to be evacuated, thousands flocking to the Expo to seek relief.

The South Obenchain fire, which started about 6 miles east of Eagle Point, had exploded past 30,000 acres, Oregon Department of Forestry officials estimated Wednesday. It also prompted evacuations in Shady Cove, officials said. Winds from the blaze hurled embers toward Reese Creek, where a spot fire ignited and grew to 1,000 acres.

“There have been structures threatened. There have been multiple structures lost,” said ODF spokesman Kyle Novy-Riley, adding the fire continued to burn westward Wednesday.

The Oregon Department of Transportation closed stretches of I-5 and Highway 99 during Tuesday’s fight against the Almeda fire, officials continuing to expand them and redirect traffic as conditions worsened. On Wednesday, the agency closed Highway 62 from Highway 234 north through Shady Cove to its intersection with the Tiller-Trail Highway during operations on the South Obenchain blaze.

“It was all hands on deck,” ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming said. “It was trying to corral people who are concerned and worried, very concerned about where to go and their livelihood. There was this double impact of emotion that was involved, and so it was very precarious. The fire was very active and dynamic, and as we saw, it just continued to grow and move and grow and move.”

The incidents canceled classes at Medford, Phoenix-Talent and Ashland school districts and knocked out power for thousands of residents. On Wednesday afternoon, more than 23,000 Pacific Power customers had no electricity. Numerous evacuation advisories remained in place for both fires Wednesday. A map showing up-to-date evacuation notices in Jackson County can be viewed online at jcgis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=3caa39804db54631a61007180d5ef415.

The Rogue Valley wasn’t alone in facing the flames. On Wednesday, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported 47 active fires in the state that had burned more than 476,000 acres, with numerous evacuations as the blazes tore through structures and terrain.

“I want to be upfront with Oregonians,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said at a Wednesday news conference. “This could be the greatest loss of life and structures due to wildfire in state history.”

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A retardant plain assists at a large fire in Medford on Wednesday.