Fuelled by erratic winds and dry lightning, the enormous Bootleg fire in southern Oregon burned through another 47,000-plus acres on Monday to reach an estimated total of 364,000 acres (564 square miles) – an area more than half the size of Rhode Island.
The challenging weather conditions have added to the dangers for the crews in parched Oregon forests who are battling the fire, currently the largest in the US.
Personnel had managed to carve containment lines around 30% of the perimeter by late Monday, up from 22% the day before, the Oregon Forestry Department reported.
“We are running firefighting operations through the day and all through the night,” said incident commander Joe Hessel in a statement on Monday morning. “This fire is a real challenge, and we are looking at sustained battle for the foreseeable future.”
Thousands were ordered to evacuate, including nearly 2,000 who live in rugged terrain among lakes and wildlife refuges near the fire, which has burned at least 67 homes and 100 outbuildings.
Despite the fire’s jaw-dropping size, the evacuations and property losses have been minimal compared with much smaller blazes in densely populated areas of California, offering a reminder that Oregon, which is larger than Britain, is still a largely rural state.
Excessive heat has baked the desiccated region, intensifying drought conditions, complicating fire containment efforts and increasing the risks of new ignitions. Officials are also concerned that dry lightning storms over California and the northern Great Basin could spark new fires. The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings and fire weather watches from central California to northwest South Dakota.
“Along with the above average temperatures, the combination of extreme drought, gusty winds, and dry lightning could make conditions ripe throughout the west for new wildfires to form and spread uncontrollably,” the agency said in a forecast issued Monday morning.
Climate change has made the US west much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. Firefighters said these conditions in July are more typical of late summer or fall.
Pyrocumulus clouds – literally translated as “fire clouds” – complicated containment efforts for the Dixie fire in northern California, where flames spread in remote areas with steep terrain crews can’t easily reach, officials said. New evacuation orders were issued in rural communities near the Feather River Canyon.
The Dixie fire remained 15% contained and covered 29 sq miles. The fire is north-east of the town of Paradise, California, and survivors of the horrific Camp fire that killed 85 people watched warily as the new blaze burned.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest utility – which has been repeatedly found responsible for the some of the biggest blazes, including the Camp fire – told California regulators in a report on Sunday that their equipment may again be to blame.
In a report issued Sunday, PG&E told the California Public Utilities Commission that on the day before the official start to the fire, a repairman responding to an outage saw what he called a “healthy green tree” leaning into a conductor with blown fuses, and a fire at the base of the tree. The investigation is on-going and officials have not yet confirmed the cause of the fire, and the utility reports that it is cooperating with CalFire’s investigation.
A growing wildfire south of Lake Tahoe jumped a highway, prompting more evacuation orders, the closure of the Pacific Crest trail and the cancellation of an extreme bike ride through the Sierra Nevada.
The Tamarack fire, which was sparked by lightning on 4 July, had charred about 28.5 sq miles of dry brush and timber as of Sunday night. The blaze was threatening Markleeville, a small town close to the California-Nevada state line. It has destroyed at least two structures, authorities said.
A notice posted on Saturday on the 103-mile Death Ride’s website said several communities in the area had been evacuated and ordered all bike riders to clear the area. The fire left thousands of bikers and spectators stranded.
Kelli Pennington and her family were camping near the town so her husband could participate in his ninth ride. They had been watching smoke develop over the course of the day, but were caught off guard by the fire’s quick spread.
“It happened so fast,” Pennington said. “We left our tents, hammock and some foods, but we got most of our things, shoved our two kids in the car and left.”
About 800 fire personnel were assigned to battle the flames by Sunday night, “focusing on preserving life and property with point protection of structures and putting in containment lines where possible,” the US Forest Service said.
A fire in the mountains of north-east Oregon grew to more than 18 square miles by Sunday. The Elbow Creek fire that started on Thursday has prompted evacuations in several small, remote communities around the Grande Ronde River about 30 miles south-east of Walla Walla, Washington. It was 10% contained.
Natural features of the area act like a funnel for wind, feeding the flames and making them unpredictable, officials said.
Overall, about 80 active large fires and complexes of multiple blazes have burned nearly 1,835 sq miles (4,753 sq km) in the US, the National Interagency Fire Center said. The US Forest Service said at least 15 major fires were burning in the Pacific north-west alone.