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The Bootleg Fire Is Forcing More People From Their Homes

The Red Cross emergency shelter at Klamath County Fairgrounds in Klamath Falls has now housed more than 130 people since opening last week. Some are choosing to stay in their vehicles or campers on fairgrounds property while others are staying inside the event center.

The Bootleg Fire, burning in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, has exploded to nearly 202,000 acres in less than a week. A second fire has sparked as well, estimated at 150 acres as of Tuesday afternoon. Efforts are underway to contain it.

The Bootleg Fire’s massive growth overnight on Monday, when it grew by more than 78 square miles, was caused when an atmospheric inversion lifted and winds picked up, fire officials said. That growth has led to an increase in evacuations in Lake County. The fire destroyed part of the Sycan Estates area in Klamath County, according to Bert Thayer, an operations chief for the Northwest Team 10 Incident Command.

“The Sycan Estates was overrun with fire three days ago,” Thayer said at a press briefing Tuesday afternoon. He said 30 structures in that area had been saved.

Thayer was unable to say how many homes have been lost to the fire in total, though there were at least seven confirmed losses as of Monday, with nearly 2,000 more structures threatened.

Michael Wolke’s home in Beatty was among those threatened. He doesn’t know if it’s still standing or not after evacuating to the Klamath County Fairgrounds on Saturday.

He’s living in a camper with his children, J.J. and Jocelyn, and their five dogs outside the event center.

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Wolke evacuated from his home in Beatty that was close to powerlines. He said he saw smoke and flames as he was leaving.

“About 14 fire trucks drove down my road,” Wolke said. “Six police cars going in either direction telling all my neighbors to get out and basically I just grabbed everything that I could in less than 30 minutes.”

On Tuesday, his children played in the bed of his pickup while he talked with his neighbors, Omer and Sarah Kose.

The Koses and their son, Noah, of Sprague River, arrived at the fairgrounds on Sunday.

The families are neighbors in eastern Klamath County, and they’re neighbors outside the shelter, too, parked one beside the other. Sarah said she was scared of coming to the shelter but felt immediate relief knowing she would be near Wolke and his family.

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The Koses are also unsure if their home withstood the fire.

“I hope it’s standing there but that fire is angry,” Sarah Kose said.

She knows of people who planned to stay in the area and isn’t sure if they made it out.

Inside the shelter, Kathie Johnson, of Bly, sits on a Red Cross cot, on a quilt donated by the Klamath Falls Gospel Mission. Her dog and two puppies sleep nearby in a small corral, with a crate of medications and most of her belongings near her bed.

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Johnson, too, is uncertain if her home made it through the fire. She says officials told her that her cabin blew up, but she’s not ready to accept that yet.

“A complete loss but I won’t know for sure until they give me a picture,” Johnson said.

Many fire officials say the fire’s behavior, especially coupled with the extreme drought conditions, is like nothing they’ve ever experienced. A group from the Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office trained to protect homes had to leave the Sycan Estates area while assessing damages to the neighborhood due to intense fire conditions..

Bert Thayer with Northwest Team 10 said the fire was at roughly 6,000 acres when he arrived on the scene mid-last week. The growth since has been astonishing, with no end in sight. Thayer’s projections for the next couple days are hot and dry conditions and an increase in fire behavior.

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“From here on it can only get worse and I have a tough time wrapping my head around that, that it can be worse than it is right now,” Thayer said.

Oregon National Guard soldiers started arriving on Tuesday to help assist with staffing roadblock checkpoints, with more expected this week.

Incident command has stated that it doesn’t expect the Bootleg Fire to be fully contained until late fall.

Copyright 2021 Jefferson Public Radio