Burning for Nearly a Month, Oregon's Bootleg Fire Continues to Move

It has torched 413,762 acres of land.

In this handout provided by the USDA Forest Service, the Bootleg Fire burns on July 12, 2021 in Bly, Oregon.
The Bootleg Fire has consumed more than 413,000 acres since July 6.

USDA Forest Service via Getty Images

Favorable weather conditions over the weekend helped to slow Oregon’s massive Bootleg Fire. It’s the first real break firefighters have had since they began battling the fast-moving blaze nearly a month ago. Officials say the fire is now 84% contained. 

Persistent cloud cover and light rain over the past couple of days allowed crews on the ground to widen and strengthen the fire line, closing off the entire perimeter. Without the strong winds that have swept the blaze across the state filling the sky with smoke and causing haze as far away as Boston and New York City, firefighters have been able to extinguish spot fires and halt some breaches of the line. 

The progress, however, comes as a shift in weather approaches. Isolated thunderstorms and gusty winds are expected in the area early this week, but the storm unfortunately isn’t likely to bring any much-needed rain. Instead, the fire could feed on the warmer temperatures and low humidity testing the work the 1,878 firefighters have done to contain it.

Karen Scholl, Operations Section Chief, said the weather in the coming days will provide a challenge but that they’re not nervous. “We want this test to happen to see how our line holds, while we have crews and contingencies in place. We believe we’re in a good position to be tested,” Scholl reported in an online fire update. 

Aided by extreme drought, the Bootleg Fire, which started July 6 in the Fremont-Winema National Forest is continuing to burn 15 miles northwest of Beatty, Oregon. It has torched 413,762 acres of land (roughly 647 square miles). 

It’s one of 90 active large wildfires currently burning in 12 Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Wildfires in 2021 have already consumed more than three million acres of forest. 

As is the case with the Bootleg Fire, record-breaking heat this summer combined with several years of drought conditions have fueled wildfires that burn faster and are more intense than in years past. So much so that the Bootleg Fire has, at times, created its own weather, complicating firefighting efforts. 

According to the National Weather Service, the Oregon fire has burned with such heat and energy that it began forming pyrocumulus clouds that have the ability to create their very own thunderstorms, produce lightning and even spark tornados. The storm-creation phenomenon, and the high winds that accompany it, have hampered containment efforts. But this weekend’s progress has fire officials hopeful they can soon have a permanent handle on the nation’s largest wildfire. 

Late last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown toured the scorched Bootleg landscape to get a firsthand look at the devastation. She issued a statement that read, “The Bootleg Fire underscores the need for our state to have more boots on the ground to respond to fires, as well as the resources necessary to create fire adapted communities and more resilient landscape.” 

Fire management is something governors across the West are looking into as the prolonged drought makes each future fire season that much more dangerous. 

On July 30, just a day after touring the Bootleg Fire damage, the Oregon governor signed a bill, which garnered bipartisan support, to provide $220 million to modernize and improve Oregon’s future wildfire preparedness. 

“Wildfire is inevitable,” the Democratic governor said, “but how we prepare and respond to fires is in our control. It’s clear we are battling with tools used in the last century. We simply were not equipped to fight the fires of this new age, which are fast and more fierce, and fueled by the impacts of climate change. We need to modernize our approach. We know that for every dollar we spend on fire prevention, our investment is returned.”

View Article Sources
  1. "National Fire News." National Interagency Fire Center, 2021.