Rain coming, but lightning en route, too

Thunder, clouds and rain are expected to continue rolling into Southern Oregon today, putting meteorologists and fire officials on the alert for lightning-sparked fires and potential flooding in scorched forestlands.

National Weather Service officials said the soils burned by area wildfires over the past month can fuse together, hindering water absorption into the ground.

"It depends on the composition of the soil and how badly it was burned," said meteorologist Jay Stockton. "The rain just rushes off quickly. It increases the chances of things like mudslides and debris flows."

A red flag warning, meaning weather conditions could contribute to additional fires, will be in effect through 8 tonight.

The rain is expected to fall in spots across the region from Siskiyou County, Calif., to Douglas County, Stockton added, so it's not yet known whether burned areas will be affected. Weather officials also will be keeping an eye out for lightning strikes that could spark additional wildfires.

"We are going to get thunderstorms. That's pretty much a given," Stockton said.

Fire officials at the Big Windy Complex near the Rogue River said the potential for flash floods isn't a concern at this point. Meteorologists on site have said the fire is right on the edge of the system.

"We could get any parts of that, but that's not something (we) think is highly likely," said Howard Hunter, public information officer for the Big Windy Complex. "We're on top of the ridges, we're not on any lower swales. We're more worried about dry lightning."

The Big Windy fire, burning 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass, remained at 20 percent containment Wednesday, with close to 23,000 acres burned. Crews continue to draw fire lines and do burnout work on about six miles of the fire's west flank, while keeping flames close to the Rogue River in check. An increase in winds that could fuel fire activity remains a concern. Crews have an estimated containment date of Sept. 1.

The Whiskey Complex burning outside Tiller grew to nearly 18,000 acres Wednesday, with crews continuing to make progress on lines and upgrading to 75 percent containment. Firefighters estimate full containment on the blaze by Friday.

That progress prompted Umpqua National Forest officials to reopen South Umpqua Road. Motorists cannot stop on the two-mile stretch between Forest Service Road No. 2826 at the Ash Flat Campground and the South Umpqua day-use access road, as material from the fires could roll down hills into the road. Forest Service Road No. 29 has been reopened from Buckeye Ridge to the junction with Forest Service Road No. 68.

The Douglas Complex, seven miles outside of Glendale, was at nearly 80 percent containment Wednesday. Fire officials reported it had burned more than 48,600 acres. Firefighters estimate full containment by Sept. 1.

In Northern California, the Salmon River and Butler complexes are continuing to send smoke into the Rogue Valley. The Butler fire, about 10 miles east of Somes Bar, had burned more than 18,000 acres and was at 30 percent containment. The Salmon River fire, burning one mile west of Sawyers Bar, is at 85 percent containment and has burned more than 14,000 acres.

Data from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality showed Medford air quality continued to hover in the "moderate" range Wednesday because of smoke from the nearby fires. Grants Pass and Cave Junction were listed as "good," while Shady Cove's air was listed as "unhealthy for sensitive groups."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com.

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