Firefighters have been scrambling to control a raging inferno in southeastern Oregon that is spreading in windy conditions for miles in a day, one of numerous wildfires straining resources across the western portion of the United States.
Crews had to flee the fire lines late on Thursday after a dangerous “fire cloud” started to collapse, threatening them with strong downdrafts and flying embers. An initial review on Friday showed the Bootleg Fire destroyed 67 homes and 117 outbuildings overnight in one county. Authorities were still counting the losses in a second county where the flames are surging up to six kilometres (four miles) a day.
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The blaze has forced 2,000 people to evacuate and is threatening 5,000 buildings that include homes and smaller structures in a rural area just north of the California border, fire spokeswoman Holly Krake said. Active flames are surging along 322km (200 miles) of the fire’s perimeter, she said and it is expected to merge with a smaller but equally explosive fire by nightfall.
The Bootleg Fire is now 194 square km (75 square miles), larger than the area of New York City and mostly uncontained.
“We’re likely going to continue to see fire growth over miles and miles of active fire line,” Krake said. “We are continuing to add thousands of acres a day, and it has the potential each day, looking forward into the weekend, to continue those three- to four-mile runs.”
The inferno has stymied firefighters for a week with erratic winds and extremely dangerous fire behaviour, including ominous fire clouds that form from super-heated air rising to a height of up to 10km (six miles) above the blaze.
“We’re expecting those same exact conditions to continue and worsen into the weekend,” Krake said of the fire-induced clouds.
Early on, the fire doubled in size almost daily and strong winds on Thursday again pushed the flames rapidly. Similar winds gusting up to 48 kilometres per hour (30 mph) were expected on Friday.
It is burning an area north of the California border that has been gripped by extreme drought, as most of the American West.
Extremely dry conditions and heatwaves tied to climate change have swept the region, making 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.
The blaze was most active on its northeastern flank, pushed by winds from the south towards the rural communities of Summer Lake and Spring Lake. Paisley, to the east of the fire, was also at risk. All the towns are in Lake County, a remote area of lakes and wildlife refuges with a total population of about 8,000.
The Bootleg Fire is one of at least a dozen big fires burning in Washington state, Oregon and California as a siege of wildfires takes hold across the drought-stricken West. There were 70 active large fires and complexes of multiple fires that have burned nearly 4,297 sq km (1,659 square miles) in the US, the National Interagency Fire Center said.
In the Pacific Northwest, firefighters say they are facing conditions more typical of late summer or autumn than early July.
About 200 firefighters were battling but had little control over the 44-square-km (17-square-mile) Red Apple Fire near the Washington city of Wenatchee renowned for its apples. The flames were threatening apple orchards and an electrical substation but no buildings have been lost, officials said.