PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Firefighters scrambled Friday to control a raging inferno in southeastern Oregon that’s spreading miles a day in windy conditions, one of numerous wildfires across the U.S. West that are straining resources.
Authorities ordered a new round of evacuations Thursday amid worries that the fire, which has already destroyed 21 homes, could merge with another blaze that also exploded in size amid dry, blustery conditions.
The Bootleg Fire, the largest wildfire burning in the U.S., has torched more than 377 square miles (976 square kilometers), and crews had little control of it. It has stymied firefighters for nearly a week with erratic winds and extremely dangerous fire behavior. Early on, the fire doubled in size almost daily, and strong winds from the south Thursday again pushed the flames rapidly to the north and east.
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 Log Fire, said Rob Allen, incident commander for the blaze. That blaze started Monday as three smaller fires but exploded to nearly 8 square miles (21square kilometers) in 24 hours and was still growing in those same winds, Allen said.
Firefighters pulled back to safe areas late Thursday because of intense fire behavior and were scouting ahead of the main blaze for places where they could carve out fire lines to stop the inferno’s advance, he said.
Crews were watching the fire, nearby campgrounds “and any place out in front of us to make sure the public’s out of the way,” Allen said. He said evacuation orders were still being assessed.
The Bootleg Fire is burning an area north of the Oregon-California border that has been gripped by extreme drought, like most of the American West.
Extremely dry conditions and heat waves 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.
Authorities expanded evacuation orders near the towns of Summer Lake and Paisley. Both are in Lake County, a remote area of lakes and wildlife refuges just north of the California border with a total population of about 8,000.
The fire has periodically generated enormous smoke columns that could be seen for miles — a sign that the blaze is so intense it is creating its own weather, with erratic winds and the potential for fire-generated lightning.
Meanwhile, a fire near the Northern California town of Paradise, which largely was destroyed in a 2018 wildfire that killed 85 people, worried homeowners who were just starting to return to normal after surviving the deadliest blaze in U.S. history.
Last year, Chuck Dee and his wife, Janie, returned to Paradise on the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada to rebuild a home lost in the fire. So when they woke up Thursday and saw smoke from the 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.
The blaze has chewed through more than 12 square miles (31 square kilometers) in the Feather River Canyon area northeast of Paradise. Officials ordered the evacuation of a wilderness recreation area and kept in place a warning for residents of the tiny communities of Pulga and east Concow to be ready to leave.
It is part of a siege of infernos across the West. There were 70 active large fires and complexes of multiple fires that have burned nearly 1,659 square miles (4,297 square kilometers) in the U.S., the National Interagency Fire Center said.
In the Pacific Northwest, firefighters say they are facing conditions more typical of late summer or fall than early July.
A wildfire threatening more than 1,500 homes near Wenatchee, Washington, has grown to 14 square miles (36 square kilometers) and crews had little control of it, the Washington state Department of Natural Resources said.
About 200 firefighters were battling the Red Apple Fire near the north-central Washington city renowned for its apples. The flames were threatening apple orchards and an electrical substation, but no buildings have been lost, officials said.