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Fire danger level reduced in Jackson County

The fire danger on lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry in Jackson and Josephine counties dropped from “extreme” to “high” Friday, thanks to cooler temperatures and some rain in the forecast.

The drop means a slight easing of restrictions on the use of power-driven and spark-emitting machinery on the 1.8 million acres of private and public lands the agency oversees in the two counties.

Tools such as chainsaws and brush cutters can now be operated until 10 a.m. and after 8 p.m. The time slots also apply to the cutting, grinding and welding of metal, and the mowing of dead or dry grass.

Other fire season regulations remain in effect, including no debris burning, no use of exploding targets or tracer ammunition, and no fireworks on or within an eighth-mile of forestlands, according to a news release.

Campfires are allowed only in designated campgrounds, though portable stoves using liquefied or bottled fuels are allowed elsewhere. Motorized vehicles are allowed only on improved roads, and a shovel and one gallon of water or a fire extinguisher that’s at least 2.5 pounds are required while traveling on forest roads.

“A lot of people might be tempted to start up some burn piles, but we’re still in fire season, and even if we’re in ‘low,’ burning is prohibited,” ODF spokeswoman Natalie Weber said. “They can spark again up to two weeks later if we get hot temperatures in the forecast, which, it is expected to pick up again next week. This is something that we see every year. People get excited about the first rain and want to do some work on their property, but we really need them to wait until fire season’s over.”

The National Weather Service weekend forecast calls for rain across Jackson and Josephine counties, with as much as a quarter-inch estimated for Medford and Ashland by early Sunday morning. Grants Pass could see up to three-tenths of an inch, with close to four-tenths of an inch in Cave Junction possible, the Weather Service reported.

Much of the rain is expected late Friday and early Saturday, with rain shifting to more “shower-based” after 11 a.m. Saturday, meteorologist Brad Schaaf said.

“If we do have a healthy shower that comes through, it could drop another one-tenth inch for us,” Schaaf said, adding conditions should start to dry out Saturday afternoon.

The weather system should help reduce smoke in the area, officials said. From late Tuesday to late Friday morning, air quality in Medford, Ashland, Talent and the Applegate consistently stayed at “unhealthy” levels, according to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality data. Much of the smoke came from fires in Northern California, including the Slater fire burning in southern Josephine County and Northern California, Weather Service officials said. On Friday, crews on the Slate fire reported it was at 155,726 acres and 70% contained.

The 2020 fire season began May 1, with fire officials raising the danger level to “extreme” July 31. The 70-day period is the longest the district has been at “extreme” in 20 years. The longest overall fire season — 168 days — occurred in 2001, starting May 15 and lasting until Oct. 29.

“It’s fairly typical to be in fire season until late October or even early November,” Weber said. “Given the early start that we had, we are shaping up to have a longer fire season this year. Obviously we won’t know until it is over, but just with the conditions that we’ve been seeing, just now dropping into ‘high’ in mid-October, (that’s) usually a little later than what we’ve been seeing in the last couple years.”

As of Friday, ODF crews had responded to 193 fires in southwest Oregon, Weber said. Those fires burned nearly 34,000 acres. The majority of that acreage came from the South Obenchain fire, which sparked near Eagle Point Sept. 8 and burned 32,671 acres, 33 homes and 56 other structures such as outbuildings. Full containment on the fire was announced Oct. 3.

The 3,200-acre Almeda fire, which burned thousands of homes and businesses, had only 22 acres on ODF-protected lands, Weber said.

The burned acreage is more than triple the district’s 10-year average, — 11,000 acres — though the number of fires is down slightly compared to the 10-year average of 234, Weber said.

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

Smoke that has blocked the sun in recent days could dissipate as rain moves into the Rogue Valley this weekend. (Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune)