The fast-moving Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon has scorched an area thousands of acres larger than New York City – prompting new evacuations and increasing concerns over thinning resources as the state enters the highest level of wildfire preparedness.
The conflagration is one of thousands of wildfires torching areas as far east as Minnesota, signs of another potentially dire fire season.
“We are seeing conditions that we usually see in mid-August,” said Alison Green, public affairs director for the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshals. “It’s been extreme fire behavior over the last week that has created conditions that are certainly challenging.”
As of Friday, the Bootleg Fire was the largest in the country and one of nine burning in Oregon. Some 28 miles away from Klamath Falls, it had scorched 241,497 acres, with 7% of the flames contained by a team of almost 2,000 firefighters, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
Since igniting July 6, flames have moved up to three miles per day, fueled by dry timber and fanned by 15 to 20 mph winds, said Ryan Berlin, a Bootleg Fire Zone 1 information officer. The fire’s cause remains under investigation.
The fire’s rapid pace and substantial growth have worried officials that it could merge with the smaller Log Fire, eight miles southwest of Summer Lake.
“It’s a pretty good possibility because the Log Fire yesterday blew up also,” Berlin said.
Another concern is the extreme weather surrounding the fire. It has generated a pyrocumulus cloud, what NASA has deemed “the fire-breathing dragon of clouds.” The vertical plume generated by intense pressure and dry conditions spreads embers and pollutants and “creates erratic fire behavior for firefighters to contend with,” Green said.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued an air-quality advisory Friday for parts of Harney, Lake and eastern Klamath counties due to smoke from the plumes.
The Bootleg Fire’s expansion has destroyed 117 outbuildings and 67 residences in Klamath County, said Holly Krake, a spokeswoman for the Bootleg Fire Incident Management Team. The fire is still raging in Lake County, home to a population of more than 7,000 residents, and the damage is being assessed, she said.
As of Friday, Krake said, some 2,000 residents across both counties had been evacuated, with over 5,000 residences threatened by the growing flames.
With an unprecedented wildfire season underway, the American Red Cross has opened four shelters throughout the state, said Chad Carter, the organization’s Oregon regional communications director. He said they are prepared to open more if needed.
“We are all planning for this to be a prolonged event this summer,” he said. “We’ve got several shelters open right now, and we’ll continue to adjust based on the need throughout the summer.”
The Bootleg Fire comes at a time when Oregon has moved into Preparedness Level 5 (PL5) – the highest level of wildfire preparedness – which is determined by a combination of factors, including burning conditions, fire activity and resources available, said Robin DeMario, a public affairs specialist at NWCC.
That designation is reached when resources are beginning to stretch thin, raising the possibility of them getting exhausted, she said. Usually, states enter this level by the wildfire season’s peak in August.
“Here at the NWCC our records go back to 2006, and since then this is the earliest a level five has occurred,” DeMario said.
Oregon is part of a national trend that points to a potentially harrowing wildfire season.
According to National Interagency Fire Center data, 34,596 wildfires have broken out in the United States so far this year – the most in the January to July time period since 2011. Additionally, 2,364,643 acres have burned, slightly up from last year’s total at this point.
Across the country, 17,718 firefighters are battling to control the flames – almost triple the number of personnel since the month began, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In her July 14 annual fire season letter, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen directed all “red-carded” employees – those qualified to assist in fire operations – to be made available for dispatching.
“This means all hands on deck,” said Riva Duncan, a retired fire staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service. “That has downstream consequences on all the other program areas. So it’s not a good place to be this early in the fire season.”
For Duncan, who also serves as secretary-treasurer for the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters – a group that advocates for the well-being of Federal Wildland Fire personnel – this reality underscores a catastrophic fusion of seasons “lasting longer, starting earlier and ending later” with resources dwindling out.
“We’re now at a tipping point where we’re seeing a really bad problem with staffing and retention, coupled with another very catastrophic fire season,” Duncan said.
With federal firefighters leaving to work for state agencies that offer better pay – or sometimes dropping out of the career altogether – frustrations have mounted and finally sounded the alarms at the federal level.
On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee finalized language in the bipartisan Energy Infrastructure Act – a legislative package that would authorize over $100 billion to invest the country’s infrastructural needs.
Of the 48 amendments to the bill that were adopted, Sen. Joe Manchin III’s, D-W.Va., Amendment 65 seeks to increase the base salary of federal wildland firefighters – a move welcomed by the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction to make sure that we’re retaining the skilled and expert workforce that we need to combat these ever-growing fires,” said Jonathon Golden, a special adviser to this advocacy group and former wildland firefighter.
The proposed legislation might not come into effect in the near future, but Golden said it could still provide a much-needed positive impact: a “morale booster” for the men and women that are currently on the line.
“Looking at this season, we’re definitely going to need it,” he said.