Firefighters scrambled Friday to control a raging inferno in southeastern Oregon spreading miles a day in stormy conditions, one of many fires across the western United States draining resources.
Authorities ordered a new round of evacuations Thursday amid fears that the Bootleg Fire, which has already destroyed 21 homes, could merge with another fire that also grew explosively amid drought and shelling conditions.
The Bootleg Fire, the largest wildfire currently raging in the United States, has set fires to an area larger than New York City and hampered firefighters for nearly a week due to choppy winds and extremely dangerous fire behavior. Early on, the fire doubled in size almost daily, and strong winds from the south on Thursday afternoon quickly pushed the flames back to the north and east.
Rob Allen, the fire incident leader, said the fire has the potential to move 4 miles (6 kilometers) or more in an afternoon, and there was concern it could merge with the smaller, still explosive Log Fire. Allen said that fire started on Monday as three small fires but exploded to nearly 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) within 24 hours and is still growing due to the same winds.
He said the firefighters were all pulled to safe areas late Thursday due to heavy fire and were exploring before the main fire for areas where they could stand by carving lines of fire to stop the progress of the inferno.
Allen said crews are monitoring the fire, nearby camps “and anywhere in front of us to make sure the public is out of the way,” and said evacuation orders were still being evaluated.
The Bootleg Fire is affecting an area north of the Oregon and California border that has been ravaged by severe drought. It was 7% contained as of Thursday, when authorities decided to expand previous evacuation orders near Summer Lake and Paisley. Both cities are located in Lake County, a remote region of lakes and wildlife refuges north of the California border and with a total population of about 8,000.
It periodically produced enormous plumes of smoke that could be seen for miles – an indication that the fire is so intense that it creates a weather of its own, with erratic winds and the possibility of lightning from the fires.
Meanwhile, a fire near the northern California town of Paradise, which caught on in a horrific wildfire in 2018, has jittered homeowners who are just beginning to return to normal after surviving the deadliest fire in US history.
Last year, Chuck Dee and his wife, Janie, returned to Paradise on the slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada to rebuild a home they lost in that fire. So when they woke up on Thursday and saw smoke from the new Dixie Fire, it was scary, even though it was burning far from the populated areas.
“It made me and my wife nervous,” he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
The Dixie fire was small when it started on Tuesday, but by Thursday morning it had burned 3.5 square miles (9 square kilometers) of bedding and lumber near the River Valley area of Butte County northeast of Paradise. It has also moved to national forest lands in neighboring Plumas County.
There was no containment and officials kept a warning in place for residents of small communities in Pulga and East Konko to be prepared to leave.
Dixie Fire is part of a fire siege across the West. There were 71 active large fires and a complex of multiple fires that burned nearly 1,553 square miles (4,022 square kilometers) in the United States, mostly in western states, according to the Interagency National Fire Center.
Extremely dry conditions and heat waves associated with climate change have engulfed the region, making wildfires even more difficult. Climate change has made the American West warmer and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and increase the frequency and destruction of wildfires.
In the Pacific Northwest, firefighters say they encounter conditions more commonly in late summer or fall than in early July.
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources said a wildfire that threatened more than 1,500 homes near Wenatchee, Washington, had grown to 14 square miles (36 square kilometers) by Thursday morning and had been contained about 10%.
About 200 firefighters were battling a red apple fire near the north-central Washington city famous for its apples. Officials said the fire also threatened apple orchards and a power substation, but no buildings were lost.
Associated Press writer Adam Beam in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.