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Hazardous smoke to persist through at least midweek

Dense smoke in Jackson County will likely persist through at least Wednesday, with some moderate clearing and a chance of rain Thursday and Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

Smoke in the Rogue Valley has created hazardous air quality since last Thursday.

Tuesday and Wednesday could see some slight improvement in terms of visibility.

“The best wording in the near term is ‘super gradual,’” National Weather Service meteorologist Shad Keene said.

The chance for notable improvement starts Thursday, when rain is in the forecast. There’s a 50% chance of precipitation Thursday for parts of the Rogue Valley, and a 70% chance Friday.

“It should clear out enough that we’ll see noticeable improvement, but once that system goes through, we’re back into a dry pattern,” said meteorologist Mike Petrucelli. “At the very least we’ll see improved visibility. It won’t look like a fog layer out there.”

Whether that clearing will endure is a big question mark. There are several other factors to consider: humidity, high temperatures, wind intensity and direction. Smoke from area fires drifted west over the Pacific Ocean, but a shift in airflow pushed a lot of it back into the area. This weekend could see a repeat, but details are scant.

“I think we might see the smoke get back in probably as early as Saturday, but it’s kind of hard to predict how much we’ll get,” Petrucelli said.

The amount of progress firefighters make on fires in southwest Oregon and Northern California will be a key factor in clearing. On Monday, The South Obenchain fire near Eagle Point was at 32,031 acres and 20% contained, according to InciWeb.

Containment lines on the south and west sides of the fire continue to hold, but the fire made a push eastward Sunday night, officials reported. It burned into the Double Day fire burn scar from 2008, and crews continue to work on a containment line to clamp down on that flank. All of Highway 62 north of Highway 234 north remains closed due to firefighting activity.

The Almeda fire, which has resulted in three deaths, destroyed numerous homes and businesses in Talent and Phoenix, and forced thousands to evacuate, was considered 70% contained Monday, the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office reported. Officials reported the size held at about 3,200 acres.

“Fire crews continue to focus their efforts inside the fire line to mitigate hazardous conditions, which include fire debris, unstable structures, downed utility lines, as well as venting natural gas lines,” a news release said.

Highway 99 is still closed to the public between north Ashland at South Valley View Drive and south Medford at South Stage Road.

An urban search-and-rescue team called Utah Task Force 1, which contains personnel from Utah and Nevada, has begun damage assessment, hazard mitigation and searches of the fire area.

Air quality remained hazardous for much of southwest Oregon through this past weekend. The smoke’s main hazard stems from PM 2.5, microscopic particles found in wildfire smoke that can embed deep into the lungs and make their way into the bloodstream.

“They are irritating inflammatory particles and they irritate any part of the body they come into contact with,” said Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County medical director.

Residents are urged to stay indoors to limit exposure to the smoke and run fans or air conditioners to help with air circulation. Health officials also recommend drinking plenty of water and wearing a protective P100 or N95 mask when out in the smoke, though they may be difficult to find, as health workers need them during the COVID-19 pandemic. A KN95 mask is a suggested alternative, public health officials said.

Humidity levels have risen the last several days while high temperatures have dropped. Sept. 8-10 saw highs in the low 90s to triple digits in Medford, with single-digit humidity. Improvements began Friday, with humidity rising to 23% and the high temperature at 78 degrees. That temperature drop was partly cause by the smoke.

“It’s just been very tempered,” Keene said.

If rain does fall this week, it would be the first measurable precipitation in more than 90 days, one of the 10 longest periods without rain in Medford history, Weather Service officials said. The longest streak was 112 days in 1929, which ended Oct. 5, of that year.

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
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