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Heavy Smoke Puts A Damper On The Bootleg Fire

The Bootleg Fire, burning on the Fremont-Winema National Forest
Jason Pettigrew
The Bootleg Fire, burning on the Fremont-Winema National Forest

After an explosive run on Friday and Saturday, the Bootleg Fire in eastern Klamath County slowed its advance Sunday, adding just a little over 6,000 acres, according to fire officials.

For five days, the Bootleg Fire roared through eastern Klamath County, doubling in size for two days running. By Sunday morning, the fire had burned nearly 144,000 acres, with zero containment. The fire moved through the Sycan Estates development and burned for about eight miles alongside a high voltage powerline corridor that supplies electricity to Northern California.

But late Sunday night fire officials said the heavy smoke created by the previous days' extreme fire behavior caused the fire to moderate on Sunday, pushing the total area burned to 150,812 acres.

Northwest Incident Management Team 10, which is currently leading the fire response, quoted fire behavior expert Forrest Ownby on its Facebook page.

"The smoke from yesterday shaded the fire today, which greatly moderated fire behavior. The shade kept temperatures a little lower and relative humidity a little higher, which resulted in far less fire growth than yesterday.”

The team's Operations Chief Bruce Meyer said, “with the moderated fire behavior today, firefighters were able to make greater progress toward containment compared to yesterday when their safety was highly compromised.”

No official update on containment had been released as of 10:00 p.m. Sunday.

The Bootleg Fire, located 15 miles northwest of Beatty, is the largest in the state, jumping from about 38,000 acres on Friday to 150,812 acres on Sunday night. The fire is threatening about 1,200 structures north of the towns of Beatty and Sprague River, Some structures have been lost and officials are evaluating damage. No fatalities have been reported as of Sunday afternoon.

Type 1 firefighting teams, which are state and nationally certified, are arriving Monday.

Firefighters working overnight Saturday and into Sunday were forced to disengage due to extreme fire conditions and return to their safety zones.

Conditions on the southwest side of the fire have so far allowed firefighters to keep the fire from moving west towards Chiloquin, which is about 20 miles away.

An evacuation center set up at the Klamath County Fairgrounds was housing nearly three dozen people displaced by the fire as of Sunday afternoon, according to Darrell Fuller, a disaster response volunteer and public information officer for the shelter.

Ben Bucher and his daughter Kimberly Bucher are among the nearly three dozen evacuees staying at the shelter. Four others have been put up in a motel.

The Buchers lost the trailers on their 10-acre property near the Sycan Forest Estates in Beatty.

“It’s all I can think about,” Ben said. “I haven’t slept for three days.”

The Bucher family didn’t think the fire would turn towards their property at first.

“It didn’t seem like it was going our direction but it went every direction,” Ben said.

Ben and Kimberly stood outside the Klamath County Fairgrounds Sunday afternoon to receive a care package from a friend visiting them from out of town. Beads of sweat dripped from Ben Bucher’s face as he tried to hold his German Shepherd, Gretchen, still. The dog was antsy because her 14 puppies were inside the fairgrounds event center.

Ben is feeling the grief of losing his home and all of his possessions, including all the family photos.

“Everything happened so fast, we got everything that was living and left,” he said.

That was on Thursday. He and his wife, and their daughter found out on Saturday that all was lost.

“I figured it was gone, but … it left a really empty feeling in me,” Ben said. “Absolutely everything – boom, gone.”

“Right now, we just don’t know where to go from here – at all,” Kimberly said.

Darrell Fuller says emotions like these are common among evacuees of wildfires or house fires. Fuller, originally from Klamath Falls, lost his own home in a house fire in 2007.

“The world just stops turning for you for a few days because you don’t know what to do,” Fuller said, “and some of these people have evacuated from their homes with literally just the clothes on their backs.”

At the shelter, evacuees find emotional support in addition to food and water. Mental health counseling is available as well as nursing care. Case managers are also on site to help them figure out what their next steps are for housing.

Holly Dillemuth was JPR's Klamath Basin regional correspondent. She was a staff reporter for the Herald and News in Klamath Falls for over 7 years covering a diverse range of topics, including city government, higher education and business.