Firefighters backed by helicopters scrambled on Friday to suppress a wind-driven inferno that is blazing across southern Oregon as dozens of fires erupting across the drought-stricken western United States strained resources.
The Bootleg wildfire forced 2,000 people to evacuate and destroyed 21 homes and 54 other structures as it exploded across 91,860 hectares (227,000 acres) of dry timber and brush through a national forest preserve about 400km (250 miles) south of Portland, Oregon’s largest city.
Bootleg, burning since July 6, has torched an area larger than New York City and is the largest wildfire burning in the US.
Fire strike teams have carved containment lines around 7 percent of the fire’s perimeter but Incident Commander Joe Hessel said the blaze would continue to expand as it threatened to merge with another blaze, the Log Fire amid dry and blustery conditions.
No serious injuries have been linked to the Bootleg Fire since it started on July 6 but nearly 2,000 homes are threatened, officials said.
“The extremely dry vegetation and weather are not in our favour,” Hessel said on Twitter.
More than 1,700 firefighters and a dozen helicopters were assigned to the Bootleg Fire, with demand for personnel and equipment across the Pacific Northwest beginning to strain available resources, said Jim Gersbach, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Reuters news service reported.
“It’s uncommon for us to reach this level of demand on firefighting resources this early” in the wildfire season, he said.
Climate change has made the American West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and more frequent and destructive wildfires now come every summer. Hot and dry weather from Canada to Mexico is draining reservoirs, threatening crops and livestock and portending a potential future water crisis.
Huge wildfires rage in California and Oregon
The Bootleg Fire is the largest of 71 active wildfires now listed on the US’s National Interagency Fire Center registry that have burned 404,000 hectares (1 million acres) in 11 US states. Bootleg is the sixth-largest on record in Oregon since the year 1900, according to state forestry figures.
Other states hit by the latest spate of wildfires include California, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, as well as the province of British Columbia, Canada.
Firefighter Garrett Souza, 42, a resident of the Oregon town of Chiloquin, said Wednesday he and his team spent 39 hours straight on the “initial attack” of the fire last week.
“It’s the cumulative fatigue that really, I think, wears a person out over time,” he told Reuters, as he took a break from hacking at hotspots in the burn area.
A fire near the northern California town of Paradise, which burned in a horrific 2018 wildfire, caused jitters among homeowners who were just starting to return to normal after surviving the deadliest blaze in US history.
Chuck Dee and his wife, Janie, returned last year to Paradise on the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada to rebuild a home lost in that fire.
When they woke up and saw smoke from the new Dixie fire, it was frightening, even though it was burning away from populated areas.
“It made my wife and I both nervous,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Erik Wegner of the US Forest Service said dense stands of dead and dying trees created highly combustible conditions for the blaze.
“It took off really fast,” he told Reuters.
Authorities have issued evacuation orders and warnings for several communities in the area.