Wind shift sends more smoke into Medford area

    As flames burn the hillside above him, a firefighter sets a backfire to help control the Taylor Creek fire burning west of Grants Pass and Merlin. (Photo from InciWeb)

    A change in wind direction produced a change — for the worse — for the Rogue Valley’s air quality Sunday, with Medford reaching a "hazardous" level and Ashland registering "very unhealthy" air.

    Dan Weygard, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Medford, said smoke levels in Medford jumped Sunday afternoon as the wind picked up and shifted direction to push more smoke into the area.

    “We had a trend with the wind picking up in the afternoon and improving the air quality in the evening hours,” Weygard said Sunday evening. “Today, instead of coming out of the north, it’s more west-northwest and as a result the wind is bringing in more smoke instead of improving things.”

    Weygard said the Medford-area smoke is coming from the Taylor and Klondike fires in Josephine County. The Taylor fire, burning west of Grants Pass and Merlin, was approaching 40,000 acres Sunday evening, while the Klondike fire, burning in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, was approaching 30,000 acres.

    At 8 p.m. Sunday, Medford’s air quality was listed as “hazardous” with an Air Quality Index of 306, while Ashland was just below "hazardous" at 296. Grants Pass registered “very unhealthy” with a 205 AQI. Shady Cove — receiving smoke from the nearby South Umpqua complex and the Sugar Pine and Miles fires, which have combined to burn more than 32,000 acres — was listed as “unhealthy” with an AQI of 172 at 7 p.m.

    Cave Junction, which is sandwiched between the Klondike fire and the 9,500-acre Natchez fire burning just south of the Oregon border, had an AQI of 152, as the westerly winds blew more of the smoke eastward.

    Weygand said the wind, which had been 10 to 12 mph in recent days, was at 17 mph just after 5 p.m. Visibility at the Medford airport was a mile to a mile and a half, he said.

    “With the stronger winds and the westerly component, things have gotten worse,” he said. The winds were forecast to return to the more normal 10 to 12 mph today, but the direction was expected to continue to blow in smoke from the west-northwest.

    And there’s no relief in sight, at least not immediately. Weygard said that a dry, cold front is expected to move into the area at the end of the week, but until then, expect more smoky weather.

    “Basically, till further notice, there’s no big change in the pattern for the next few days,” he said.

    Just to add to the misery index, high temperatures in Medford are expected to hit 105 by Thursday.

    But Weygard saw at least one silver lining for the coming week.

    “If it’s any consolation,” he said, “we’re not getting any thunderstorms to create more fires.”

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