A blurry sun seen through smoke begins to set below Rogue Valley Manor in Medford on Sunday. Smoke from Northern California wildfires blanketed the valley and was so thick that it blocked the sun completely before it set. The haze is expected to last for days. - Jim Craven

Smoke likely to linger

The more than 100 wildfires devouring acreage near the California/Oregon border will continue to bring eye-stinging, breath-choking smoke to the Rogue Valley for the next several days, officials say.

The Shasta-Trinity National Forest area wildfires, caused by lightning strikes, cover more than 45,000 acres, and were only minimally contained as of Sunday evening, according to reports from the U.S. Forest Service.

Saturday's fast-moving storm brought violent winds and torrential rain from Ashland to Medford to Rogue River. It also brought concerns the dense smoke filling the valley was coming from local fires. Fire department officials say they are being inundated with calls from worried residents.

The storm's 550 lightning strikes did result in 10 small fires, but the blazes were quickly extinguished and totaled under 10 acres, said Brian Ballou, fire prevention specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

"I don't blame people for being concerned. Everybody's watching the skies. But we did get quite a lot of rain and that helped us out," said Ballou.

A 20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms is predicted for today along with partly cloudy and smoky skies, and a high near 94 degrees. Shifting winds will keep the smoke in the area through Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

"We will be in an air quality alert for a couple of days," said Ballou.

The dense layer of heavy smoke is making it difficult for spotters to watch for fires, he said.

"Fire lookouts on mountain tops can't see much," Ballou said.

ODF crews have been flying a reconnaissance plane over the valley to assess damage and look for fires. Most of the fires were spotted in the Sardine Creek area north of Gold Hill and Galls Creek near Jacksonville, he said.

Aircraft do a better job searching through the constant haze, but there are no panoramic views to be had right now, Ballou said.

"In this constant haze it's hard to see a trickle of smoke," Ballou said.

Medford resident Jason Moore was trying to enjoy a Sunday afternoon picnic with his family at Jefferson Elementary School when the smoke drove everyone to pack it up and move back inside.

"We couldn't see 150 yards. It was really bothering the kids," said Moore.

On Saturday evening, severe weather warnings were issued for the northwestern end of Jackson and southwestern end Josephine counties where the wet and windy storm added golf-ball sized hail to its arsenal. Witnesses reported ripped down tree limbs, destroyed property, stranded motorists and power outages lasting until the early morning hours.

At the 55th Annual Rooster Crow in Rogue River, about half of the event's 60 vendor booths sustained significant damage, said City Administrator Mark Reagles.

"It was horrible. Big huge tents were blowing across the streets, and there were tree limbs down all over, blocking the streets. You didn't even begin to know where to begin helping people," Reagles said, adding several vendors salvaged what they could and called it quits.

City vehicles also sustained damage, he said.

"The police cars got beat up pretty good," Reagles said.

Reagles was driving from Gold Hill to Rogue River on Highway 99 when the hailstorm began at about 7 p.m., he said.

"It was hitting the windshield so hard you were sure it was going to break. When the hail hit the river, water was bouncing up about a foot. And the wind was really blowing. Trees were bending and limbs were flying," he said.

Reagles sought shelter under the newly constructed Depot Street Bridge to wait out the storm, along with several other motorists.

"It got pretty crowded real fast," Reagles said. "We passed one guy on a motorcycle who was stopped by the side of the highway, hunched over his bike. He was just getting pelted."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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