Aug. 30—The Rum Creek Fire was at 11,696 acres as of Tuesday morning, and shifting wind choked the Rogue Valley with smoke levels that ranged from the unhealthy to hazardous range.
The fire is burning northwest of Grants Pass. Wind previously had carried the worst of the smoke to the south over Cave Junction.
But Medford, Talent and Ashland were at unhealthy levels Tuesday morning, while Grants Pass was in the hazardous category. By noon Tuesday, Medford had improved slightly to unhealthy for sensitive groups, according to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality air monitoring stations.
For air quality updates, see oraqi.deq.state.or.us/home/map.
"This widespread smoke is expected to lift this afternoon," Amber Ortega, air resource adviser on the Rum Creek Fire, said during a Tuesday noon briefing. "We'll get some dispersion and we'll get some relief. There will still be smoke in the area, but it will be less than it was ... Monday night."
Smoke will remain in the areas around the fire and along the I-5 corridor. Smoke will move east and north of the fire, she said.
The smoke is proving to be both a blessing and a curse for firefighters battling the Rum Creek Fire.
The fire gained 1,924 acres from Monday to Tuesday. On Monday, heavy smoke slowed fire activity by moderating temperatures and increasing humidity. But firefighters on the ground got no help from the air as heavy smoke grounded helicopters and planes, fire managers said Tuesday morning.
"Today, fire personnel will be monitoring the weather closely," fire managers said in a news release Tuesday morning. "If the skies clear, the fire is likely to become more active due to improved air circulation and higher temperatures. Increased fire activity may lead to torching trees, with the potential for fire runs, large column growth, and spot fires up to two miles ahead of the fire. Temperatures are also expected to be higher for the next few days before moderating toward the end of the week."
On Tuesday at noon, Ortega predicted a smoke column will develop.
Large smoke columns can create extremely dangerous conditions.
Solar heating from the sun and heat from a fire can cause a smoke column to rise high in the air. A smoke column usually peaks in the mid to late-afternoon, said Miles Bliss, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Medford.
"It collapses, usually in the evening as it cools. It loses its support. Think of a video you may have watched of a building collapsing. It falls in on itself," Bliss said.
Just as the building's collapse generates a billowing dust cloud that rushes out from the base, a collapsing smoke column can create rushing, erratic winds that fan out from a fire, Bliss said.
In late July in Northern California, a thundercloud filled with smoke and moisture over the newly started McKinney fire collapsed, fanning the flames with strong downdraft winds. The fire exploded to 18,000 acres within a few hours. The fire tore through the small community of Klamath River, which was under an evacuation order. Four people who were still there died in their homes and in a vehicle.
Bliss said people need to heed evacuation warnings from sheriff's offices, emergency managers and other agencies.
"If they tell you to evacuate, you need to go," he said.
For evacuation updates on the Rum Creek Fire, see the Josephine County Emergency Management website at www.facebook.com/josephinecountyEM.
Evacuation maps on the website can be hard to understand.
A better map that shows evacuation zones, the fire's last mapped location, street names and towns can be viewed at tinyurl.com/JOCOEvacMap. The map can be slow to load and display information even with a fast internet connection. Allow the map time to load, then use the + tool to zoom in on the area you want to see.
The Galice and Rand areas, plus areas to the east, west and southeast remained under a "Level 3 — Go Now" evacuation notice as of Tuesday morning. The latest fire mapping shows the fire is approaching Indian Mary Park, which is at "Level 2 — Be Set" to evacuate at a moment's notice.
All of Merlin and areas north of town and southeast of town are at "Level 1 — Be Ready." Residents should have an evacuation plan, have a go-kit of essentials and monitor evacuation alerts.
On Tuesday, fire managers said the National Guard had arrived to help with traffic control and security around the fire. More firefighting personnel are arriving to increase capacity for wildland firefighting and the protection of homes and buildings. That new help includes California fire engines working with Oregon State Fire Marshal's office resources on structure protection.
OSFM will have five groups patrolling, assessing structures, and expanding structure protection plans for homes east of the fire from Hog Creek County Park north to Grave Creek, fire managers said.
Fire managers said firefighters will continue to work on containment lines. In the area south of Grave Creek, bulldozer lines are being constructed along ridgelines, connecting to hand lines completed Monday. To the southeast, brush is being cleared along roads and bulldozer lines are being constructed to hold the fire west of Stratton Creek and north of the Rogue River. To the west, control lines are being constructed between Bear Gulch and Rocky Gulch. Besides the primary lines being constructed near the fire, personnel are working on an alternate line near Hog Creek as a contingency line if the fire crosses Stratton Creek.
A community meeting about the fire is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at North Valley High School, 6741 Monument Drive, north of Merlin.
For those sensitive to smoke, be aware the high school doesn't have air conditioning with a filtration system. The meeting will be broadcast live at www.facebook.com/rumcreekfire2022.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.