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Smoke to continue through the weekend

The National Weather Service said Jackson County residents should prepare for smoky air at least through the weekend.

Powerful winds from the east that fueled the devastating Almeda and South Obenchain fires diminished across the area Thursday, but the air flow reversed, bringing smoke that had blown out of the area back into the Rogue Valley.

“All the smoke that’s been generated and pushed west, hundreds, even 1,000 miles offshore over the ocean ... that’s all going to be shoved back east toward us,” National Weather Service meteorologist Shad Keene said. “I’d say people need to prepare for poor air quality through the weekend.”

On Thursday, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued an air quality advisory through Monday. Jackson County Public Health cautioned that the smoke levels overlapping with the COVID-19 pandemic complicates the public health response, because air pollutants worsen symptoms and outcomes of the illness.

Populations that are most vulnerable to wildfire smoke include children, adults 65 years and older, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease, asthma and diabetes, outdoor workers and those who have limited access to medical care such as people, public health officials said.

Area residents are asked to stay indoors and limit exposure to smoke by keeping windows and doors closed. Use air conditioning if you can and regularly change filters to create cleaner air indoors.

At noon Thursday, air quality was at “very unhealthy” levels in Ashland, the Applegate, Grants Pass and Cave Junction, according to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality data. Medford air was “unhealthy,” while Shady Cove and Klamath Falls had diminished to “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

The wind is expected to remain calm, weather forecasters said.

“Nowhere in our forecast shows much wind, like significant wind,” Keene said, adding there might be a slight uptick Saturday east of the Cascades, but areas west of the mountains shouldn’t feel the effects.

Humidity levels were up about 10%-20% across much of the region Thursday, except at higher elevations.

The first chance of some clearing won’t be until late Sunday.

“It’s a fall-type system,” Keene said. “That’s when things could change. It’s hard to predict how that’s going to impact, if it’s just going to blow more smoke in here or if it’s going to kind of mix things up a little bit.”

There’s a slight chance of rain in parts of the region early next week, though how much of an effect that would have is unknown given the dry conditions and heavy smoke.

“We were talking 4% humidity [Wednesday],” Keene said. “Lowest I’ve seen here in Medford. I mean, really, daily record-dry atmosphere. When that happens, and these systems move in, often they just kind of get eaten up by the dry air.”

Confidence for at least some rain along the Oregon Coast is increasing. Whether the precipitation makes it inland is a question mark, Keene said, adding that local fire behavior will factor in to next week’s smoke levels.

“And maybe how much of that smoke over the [ocean] has been cleared out,” Keene said.

Oregon Department of Forestry officials revised the acreage on the South Obenchain fire — Jackson County’s largest — Thursday, reporting the blaze had grown to 20,250 acres. The fire outside Eagle Point has about 340 personnel assigned to it, with 15 engines, 17 dozers, 21 water tenders, nine helicopters and an air tanker working on containment. The fire has forced multiple evacuations, including thousands from Shady Cove. As of Thursday, there was no containment on the fire.

An up-to-date map of evacuation levels can be viewed at https://jcgis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=3caa39804db54631a61007180d5ef415.

The Almeda fire destroyed 3,200 acres and at least 600 houses.

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

An Erickson Air Tanker is parked on the tarmac of the Medford airport amid thick smoke. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune