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Oregon blaze big, but losses minimal

by The Associated Press | July 20, 2021 at 4:06 a.m.
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, the Bootleg Fire burns in the background behind the Sycan Marsh in southern Oregon on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The destructive Bootleg Fire, one of the largest in modern Oregon history, has already burned more than 476 square miles (1,210 square kilometers), an area about the size of Los Angeles. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The monstrous wildfire burning in Oregon has grown to one-third the size of Rhode Island and spreads miles each day, but evacuations and property losses have been minimal compared with much smaller blazes in densely populated areas of California.

The fire's size contrasted with its relatively small impact on people underscores the vastness of the American West and offers a reminder that Oregon, which is larger than Britain, is still a largely rural state, despite being known mostly for its largest city, Portland.

The 476-square-mile Bootleg Fire is burning 300 miles southeast of Portland in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest, a vast expanse of old-growth forest, lakes and wildlife refuges.

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The blaze was one of many burning in a dozen states, most of them in the West. Sixteen large uncontained fires burned in Oregon and Washington state Monday, affecting a total of 767 square miles, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said.

If the Bootleg Fire were in densely populated parts of California, "it would have destroyed thousands of homes by now," said James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University's College of Forestry who studies historical wildfires. "But it is burning in one of the more remote areas of the Lower 48 states. It's not the Bay Area out there."

At least 2,000 homes have been evacuated at some point during the fire and another 5,000 threatened. At least 70 homes and more than 100 outbuildings have gone up in flames. Thick smoke chokes the area where residents and wildlife have already been dealing with months of drought and extreme heat. No one has died.

Pushed by strong winds from the southwest, the fire is spreading rapidly to the north and east, advancing toward an area that's increasingly remote.

Evacuation orders on the fire's southern edge, closer to more-populous areas like Klamath Falls and Bly, have been lifted or relaxed as crews gain control. Now it's small, unincorporated communities like Paisley and Long Creek -- both with fewer than 250 people -- and scattered homesteads that are in the crosshairs.

"The Bootleg Fire is threatening ranch houses that are in pretty far-flung areas," Johnston said. "There are no suburbs in that area."

As big as the Bootleg Fire is, it's not the biggest Oregon has seen. The fire's current size places it fourth on the list of the state's largest blazes in modern times, including rangeland fires, and second on the list of infernos specifically burning in forest.

These megafires usually burn until the late fall or even early winter, when rain finally puts them out.

On Monday, flames forced the evacuation of a wildlife research station as firefighters had to retreat from the flames for the ninth consecutive day because of erratic and dangerous fire behavior. Sycan Marsh hosts thousands of migrating and nesting birds and is a key research station on wetland restoration in the upper reaches of the Klamath Basin.

Fire pushed by winds and fueled by bone-dry conditions jumped fire-retardant containment lines and pushed up to 4 miles into new territory, authorities said.

Fire crews were also rushing to corral multiple "slop fires" -- patches of flames that escaped fire lines meant to contain the blaze -- before they grew in size. One of those smaller fires was already nearly 4 square miles in size. Thunderstorms with dry lightning were possible as well, heightening the dangers.

"We are running firefighting operations through the day and all through the night," said Joe Hessel, incident commander. "This fire is a real challenge, and we are looking at sustained battle for the foreseeable future."

Extremely dry conditions and heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, the Bootleg Fire burns at night in southern Oregon on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The destructive Bootleg Fire, one of the largest in modern Oregon history, has already burned more than 476 square miles (1,210 square kilometers), an area about the size of Los Angeles. The Bootleg Fire is among dozens burning in the parched West.  (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, the Bootleg Fire burns at night in southern Oregon on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The destructive Bootleg Fire, one of the largest in modern Oregon history, has already burned more than 476 square miles (1,210 square kilometers), an area about the size of Los Angeles. The Bootleg Fire is among dozens burning in the parched West. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, the Bootleg Fire is seen smoldering in southern Oregon, Saturday, July 17, 2021. The destructive Bootleg Fire, one of the largest in modern Oregon history, has already burned more than 476 square miles (1,210 square kilometers), an area about the size of Los Angeles. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, the Bootleg Fire is seen smoldering in southern Oregon, Saturday, July 17, 2021. The destructive Bootleg Fire, one of the largest in modern Oregon history, has already burned more than 476 square miles (1,210 square kilometers), an area about the size of Los Angeles. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a public information officer talks with evacuees at a Red Cross Shelter near the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, Sunday, July 18, 2021. The destructive Bootleg Fire, one of the largest in modern Oregon history, has already burned more than 476 square miles (1,210 square kilometers), an area about the size of Los Angeles. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a public information officer talks with evacuees at a Red Cross Shelter near the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, Sunday, July 18, 2021. The destructive Bootleg Fire, one of the largest in modern Oregon history, has already burned more than 476 square miles (1,210 square kilometers), an area about the size of Los Angeles. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, firefighters battle the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, Saturday, July 17, 2021. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (J. Michael Johnson/Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, firefighters battle the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, Saturday, July 17, 2021. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (J. Michael Johnson/Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, firefighters battle the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, Saturday, July 17, 2021. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (J. Michael Johnson/Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, firefighters battle the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, Saturday, July 17, 2021. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (J. Michael Johnson/Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a DC-10 tanker drops retardant over the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, Thursday, July 15, 2021. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a DC-10 tanker drops retardant over the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, Thursday, July 15, 2021. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather through at least Monday with lightning possible in both California and southern Oregon. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)

Print Headline: Oregon blaze big, but losses minimal

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