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Wildfire

After a Pause, Hot, Dry Weather Gives The Bootleg Fire New Momentum

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Jason Pettigrew
/
ODF
Fire fighters defend buildings from the Bootleg Fire in Klamath County.

Less than a week after it started on the Fremont-Winema National Forest in south central Oregon, the Bootleg Fire is now the nation’s largest active wildfire. And it's on the move again.

The fire grew explosively for several days late last week, forcing fire crews to back off and seek safety, before it moderated somewhat on Sunday. But the fire picked up speed again overnight on Monday, adding another 50,000 acres and fire officials say the weather conditions forecast for the coming days seem to be setting it off on another ferocious run.

As of Tuesday morning, the fire had burned more than 201,000 acres, destroying seven homes in Klamath County and forcing many people to evacuate. Nearly 70 people had taken shelter at the Red Cross Evacuation Center at the Klamath County Fairgrounds in Klamath Falls. Close to 2,000 structures in areas close to the towns of Sprague River, Beatty, and Bly are currently threatened.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced Monday it had authorized nearly $600,000 in extra federal funds for the effort to fight the Bootleg Fire.

Tents dotted the lawn of Chiloquin High School on Monday, and fire engines parked in front of Chiloquin Elementary. The city of Chiloquin, pop.957 as of the most recent census, is located about 30 minutes north of Klamath Falls. It’s become a fire camp and command center for an army of firefighters who now outnumber residents. More than a thousand firefighters are working the fire, burning in eastern Klamath County and parts of Lake County. More resources are on the way, as well, with the Oregon National Guard deploying roughly 65 troops to the area this week. The first teams will arrive in Klamath County on Tuesday to assist incident command in staffing road closure checkpoints and helping local and state officials.

Fire officials say the speed and ferocity of the Bootleg Fire pushed them to the limit.

“With a fire this large, it did not take long to really overwhelm the resources we had,” said Brandon Fowler, emergency manager for the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office. “This fire was growing at such a tremendous pace for a couple of days that basically we needed to throw everything at it that we could get.”

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Holly Dillemuth
Brandon Fowler, emergency manager for Klamath County, points out the power lines that run through the heart of the Bootleg Fire area. Fowler is stationed with state incident commanders and other fire officials at their command station at Chiloquin High School.

The fire started Tuesday, July 6, burning in steep, rugged terrain in mixed conifer and lodgepole pine. It was initially reported at 100 acres. Within hours, it had grown to 3,000. Over the next three days, bone-dry fuels, high temperatures and gusty winds drove the fire to 16,000, then 39,000, then 77,000, then 144,000 acres by Saturday night. The monster fire produced so much smoke it triggered unhealthy Air Quality Index readings more than 60 miles away in the Rogue Valley.

That heavy cloud of smoke also helped damp down the fire on Sunday, dramatically slowing its growth and giving crews a chance to get caught up. Brandon Fowler, who had earlier described the fire as resembling an octopus, said the fire had filled in the areas between the “tentacles,” making it possible for firefighters to start to throw lines around it.

“It becomes easier for them to defend and maintain,” Fowler said. “So I think we’re seeing a lot of progress.”

Fire officials are concerned by the severity of dry conditions for this time of year. Rich Saalsaa, a public information officer for the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office, said the area is seeing conditions that normally don’t get this bad until late summer.

“The fuels right now are extremely dry. That's been the problem with this fire,” Saalsa said. “One little ember, if it lands on something that’s burnable, 100% will burn. And in the shade, 70%. So that’s how volatile it is at the moment.”

Over the weekend, the fire burned through the Sycan Forest Estates development, though the damages were unknown as of Monday. Crews were on site extinguishing “hot spots” and removing fire damaged trees.

Power companies are also inspecting damages to a major power transmission corridor that carries electricity to California, according to an update from the incident command Facebook page.

No injuries or fatalities have so far been reported related to the fire.

But the Bootleg Fire is far from done. It remains at 0% containment, and the National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning through Wednesday, meaning hot, dry, windy weather that will facilitate fire growth.

Given the size of the fire and the likely weather conditions, officials expect the Bootleg Fire will continue burning for weeks to come.