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Dry and freezing, ripe for fire

The Rogue Valley is in the midst of an unusual dry stretch, with fall precipitation numbers for Medford and other parts of the area well below average.

So while fire season on lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry is technically over, conditions are still plenty ripe for wildland flareups.

“We’ve seen a shift in conditions. Instead of having the hot weather, we’re having freezing temperatures, which is just as much of a hazard,” said ODF public information officer Natalie Weber. “We have the lower humidity, we have the freezing conditions, and then if we have a windy day and sunshine in the afternoon, we’re right back up there at high risk for fires to spread.”

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The pittance of rain to fall over the area the last month and a half isn’t helping.

About 0.6 inches fell over Medford in October, National Weather Service data show, less than half of the 1.13 inches that is normal for the month. Ashland received 0.4 inches for October — the normal amount is 1.13 inches — and Grants Pass received 0.89, more than an inch below the normal amount of 1.93 inches.

None of those spots have received more than a trace amount since November started, meteorologist Connie Clarstrom said. That puts the area significantly behind on the water year, which runs from October to September.

A high pressure ridge that extends from California to British Columbia is the culprit.

“That’s bringing our dry, warm days but cool nights,” Clarstrom said.

The gap between daytime highs and nighttime lows has been striking.

On Friday, Nov. 9, Medford saw a 62-degree high temperature. Overnight, it plummeted to 25 degrees, a 37-degree difference. Such large daily temperature swings — or “diurnal ranges” — are more typical of desert environments. It wouldn’t be odd to see such fluctuations during the summer, but they’re not typical for November, weather officials say.

ODF officials had to scramble this month to deal with two fires that started along Interstate 5 outside Ashland. The first and larger of the two, the I5MP4 fire, flared up Wednesday, Nov. 7, near milepost 4. Crews had it contained at 13 acres by the next day, but also had to deal with a half-acre flareup near milepost 11. The cause of both fires is still under investigation, but ODF officials have said the dry conditions haven’t helped matters.

“Overnight freezing conditions dry out the leftover fuels in our region and create an increased risk for fire,” a Weather Service Nov. 8 Facebook post said. “Combined with our current forecast of low relative humidity, wind and sunny afternoons, the risk increases even more.”

Conditions aren’t expected to change much in the near term. A weak front could bring a bit of moisture Wednesday, but mostly in the way of increased clouds, not rain. Another high pressure ridge is right behind it.

“It really does not look good for a significant pattern change,” Clarstrom said.

Fire officials haven’t decided whether to reintroduce some fire-season mandates because of the conditions.

“We’ve had a lot of people ask about fire season and restrictions and if they’re going to go back into effect, and it’s something that we monitor throughout the year,” Weber said. “At this point, a decision hasn’t really been made, but it’s always on our minds: What are the conditions and how at risk are we for a fire to start and spread?”

For now, the agency is asking residents to observe extreme caution during burn days. Between the weather conditions and the fact that the agency sent two engines and four firefighters down to Yreka to cover for Cal Fire personnel dispatched to fight the Camp fire, firefighters are hoping to minimize risk as much as possible.

“We do have fire season, and that’s when we’re more prone to have fires, but fires can happen at any point in the year, and we’re always watching and ready for when they do,” Weber said.

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com or at 541-776-4468. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

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