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Bootleg Fire roars through Southern Oregon

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a firefighter works during nighttime firefighting operations, July 15, 2021 in the Bootleg Fire.
Bootleg Fire Incident Command via InciWeb
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a firefighter works during nighttime firefighting operations, July 15, 2021 in the Bootleg Fire.

The Bootleg Fire blazing through Southern Oregon continues to grow and covers more than 300,000 acres. We hear from Joe Siess, a reporter for the Herald and News about what he’s seeing. We’ll also talk to Suzanne Flory, Interagency Fire Communication specialist for the U.S. Forest Service.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller.

We start today with the Bootleg Fire which is burning in Southern Oregon and has scorched over 300,000 acres so far. It remains the largest wildfire in the country. In a few minutes, we’re going to put the Bootleg Fire in the larger context of the tinderbox that is the American West right now.

But we start with Joe Siess. He’s a reporter for the Herald and News in Klamath Falls. Thanks for joining us.

Joe Siess: Hi Dave. Thanks for having me.

Miller: So what has made fighting this fire so challenging over the last couple of weeks?

Siess: It’s a combination of factors. It has to do with the weather. We’ve been having some very dry, hot weather, plus wind, which is not good. All of those things combined, it pushed the fire in a certain direction, and then also gave it fuel. That’s another thing about the wildfires is the fuel on the ground, meaning plant material. All the plant material is dry because of all the dry weather. So all of these things combined is creating a perfect storm for this fire to just continue growing.

Miller: You talked to some people over the last week and a half with some harrowing stories. Can you tell us first about Joy Treadway?

Siess: Joy Treadway reached out to me concerning an issue she was having. She was up in the evacuation zone, it was a level three evacuation zone. Her ranch, Blackwing Ranch, is up there and in the evacuation zone. She stayed behind; she decided not to evacuate. She had her car ready full of animals, she has many animals, and she packed as many as she could in her car and waited just in case she might have to evacuate. But fortunately, the fire skirted her property and went around her ranch and their property. So she stayed.

Then, the issue was she couldn’t get down from the area, from the evacuation zone, to get some supplies and food and feed for her animals and whatnot. So that was kind of scary being like, “My animals are gonna starve to death unless, you know, they let us down.”

Miller: What have officials said about people disregarding evacuation orders?

Siess: The officials were really clear from the start. They said “This is a level three evacuation zone, meaning you better get out of here. It is not safe to be here. And if you do choose to stay behind, don’t expect emergency services to be rendered in the case of an emergency.” They were very clear from the very beginning, “Listen to our evacuation orders.”

Miller: Do you know how [Joy Treadway] is doing now?

Siess: I do. I spoke to her this morning, and she seems to be doing just fine. She’s on the property still. She said there’s still a lot of smoke and a few hot spots around in the area, but she’s not really too concerned at the moment. She didn’t lose any animals except for one elderly chicken that had heart conditions anyway. She said she’s been finding other people’s animals who are severely hurt or burned because of the fire, and some of them had to be put down. So,  she might’ve got off easier than other people in the area, but there’s still a lot of damage, devastation.

Miller: You talked to one of her neighbors, Cynthia Schmidt, who in a sense made the opposite decision from Joy Treadway. Can you tell us Cynthia Schmidt’s story?

Siess: Sure. So Cynthia wasn’t so lucky in the sense that her house completely burned down, it was completely incinerated. The words that she used when we were talking was “I could feel the heat and I could hear the fire.” She was at her house up there, and she could literally feel and hear the fire approaching. So she was like, “Alright, I’m out of here.”

So she goes down to Klamath Falls, where the Red Cross has a shelter at the fairgrounds. The next morning, she was like “Well, I’m going to go back up and bring some supplies to my neighbors” She tries to get back up there around 8:30 AM, and she gets stopped by a sheriff’s deputy who tells her “You’re not going up here. You’re not allowed up here, level three, sorry, evacuation, cannot go back up.”

So she goes to plan B, and finds an alternate way to get back up to her property. This time, she runs into a member of the national guard, who said “You’re not allowed to go up, but there’s not really much we can do to stop you.” So that’s how she got back up with some supplies.

Miller: You mentioned the Red Cross run shelter in Klamath Falls. What has the scene been like there over the last week and a half?

Siess: It seems like the Red Cross has things pretty well under control. The last time I was there, there were a few people with their families, taking their time, discussing what their next moves are going to be and whatnot. You have to keep in mind that a lot of these people lost everything, everything they have is gone.

And then some other people were pretty lucky. I spoke to a family, who thought their home was destroyed, they were expecting their home to be destroyed, but it didn’t get burned. So they were pretty happy about that. They were just waiting at the shelter, waiting for the evacuation levels to drop to two, which they have, and then they are off back to their property.

Miller: With the fire moving east away from Klamath Falls, what do officials have planned for emergency shelters on the other side of the fire?

Siess: I spoke to Darrell Fuller, who’s a volunteer at the Red Cross. It looks like they have a shelter set up in Lakeview in case of an emergency, in case people start having to evacuate on that side of things. That’s what I know so far about the shelter, in that regard

Miller: When we were in Klamath Falls last week, the smoke level was okay in the mornings, and then each afternoon and evening it would get thicker, seemingly just some kind of shift in the wind was responsible for that. What’s it been like in recent days?

Siess: Recently, it hasn’t been that bad. I honestly don’t know why. But earlier, like last week, it was pretty bad. I was coughing, and a lot of people around me were coughing. You would wake up and it would look smokey and it would smell like a campfire all the time. It was pretty nasty.

But for the past couple of days, I guess the winds have shifted. It’s pretty clear, and you can see Mount Shasta again, which is lovely, we can see it from our newsroom here, and we couldn’t see it for a while. Now we can see it again. So that’s a good sign, I guess.

Miller: I don’t know if you can see the fire burning on Mount Shasta now, but that was that’s one more view. If you can see Shasta, you can see potentially the fire there as well. Joe Siess, thanks very much for starting us off today. I appreciate it.

Siess: Absolutely. Thank you, Dave.

Miller: I’m joined by Suzanne Flory. She is an inter-agency fire communications specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. Suzanne Flory, thanks very much for joining us.

Suzanne Flory: Thanks, Dave, thanks for having me.

Miller: Can you give us the interagency’s latest update on this Bootleg Fire?

Flory: Yeah. I just want to clarify, I cover Oregon and Washington, but I can speak to the broader picture past the Northwest as well.

The Bootleg Fire is our number one priority in the nation right now. It’s the largest fire burning on the landscape. It’s just been a really tough one, and it’s active and it’s moving, like you heard Joe talks about. We’re allocating as many of the resources that they need, [so] that they can get effective tactics on the ground. Sometimes that doesn’t always work, because firefighter safety is number one. We’ve had a couple instances on that fire where things were just so intense and erratic that the firefighters had to pull back for a certain amount of time because of safety.

It’s a challenging one. We have some really good incident management teams managing that fire. We work really closely with our interagency partners, from local and rural community firefighting groups to all the federal agencies. So I know they’re putting everything they can into getting a handle on this one,

Miller: Practically speaking, what does it mean for a fire to be the number one priority? When there are other fires burning in the state or in the region or in the West, what does it mean for this fire to be the top priority?

Flory: It’s an interesting system. We’re in Planning Level Five nationally, which indicates there are a lot of fires happening across the West. The resource allocation becomes sort of like a game of chess, where you move pieces around strategically. Because of different values at risk, fire behavior, size of fire, all those things play into how fires are prioritized and what resources they get because of those different values at risk. Every day, fire managers are looking at what’s on the landscape, what’s emerging and where those priority resources need to be assigned or reassigned?

Miller: What’s the larger picture right now, in terms of fire in the West? As you said, you focus on Oregon and Washington, but I imagine there are conversations that are, you know, US West-wide. What does it look like?

Flory: I’d love to say it looks okay, but honestly, it’s a really historic season so far, because everybody is having a more dramatic fire behavior around fires. And we’re having earlier fire seasons. In the Northwest, our fire season isn’t typically upon us until August or September, and our fire season really started going in June already. That’s happening in other areas too. Last year at the same time, we had seven fires in Oregon. I’m speaking about large fires. And this year, at this time we have 26. There’s no rain in the forecast, severe drought conditions, mother nature might be bringing some lightning to South Central and Central Oregon, maybe parts of Northern Washington. It’s a little bit of an uphill battle right now.

I would say, on a positive note, we’ve got incredible initial attack resources. And once again, that’s working with our interagency partners. So it doesn’t matter where a fire starts, who owns that land, we’re going to give it all we can to try to catch those fires when they’re small, and really try to not have another large emerging incident happen.

Miller: Last week, US Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen put out a pretty scary letter. She wrote “We are seeing severe fire behavior that resists control efforts. The seasonal forecast for the entire Western United States remains extreme for the next several months. We expect demand for resources to outpace resource availability.” What does that mean?

Flory: That goes back to the fire managers throughout the day looking at what’s happening in the big picture, and moving resources as needed based on the different priorities. So, good news for Oregon, we do have some fires that are winding down and tying up. So those resources that were on those fires can be moved to other fires. There’s just a constant moving around of resources and making decisions. One of the big decision markers is: is it an area that it’s safe to put firefighters in? And sometimes we’ll have fires start in very remote, rugged, steep locations that we don’t have values at risk. And so that might be a lower priority than if we have a fire within an area of possibly impacting a community or power lines or a reservoir, those kinds of things. It’s really that big picture look, and moving resources as we can.

There are limited resources, it is a reality, and it will result in some tough decisions for everybody, as we get further into this fire season. And it’s not just firefighters, it’s everything involved with large fires, from caterers that feed the firefighters to shower units. It’s all these different logistics that are needed to support these large fire incidents that there’s only so many of them to go around.

Miller: Well, I’ve seen reports about various kinds of shortages, or potential shortages. Personnel, or jet fuel, there was an article about that recently, or equipment as you were just talking about. What do you see as the biggest issue in terms of firefighting resource scarcity?

Flory: I’d say the biggest issue is fatigue. Yeah, we have a scarcity, but we also need to take care of the people we have, because this fire season is gonna go a long time. It started so early. We work 14 days on and then a couple of days off, and then you’re back at it. That managing of fatigue for the safety of our firefighters is really huge, and that plays into the decision making as well. If you’ve been out on 10 fires in the summer, it’s gonna take a toll and maybe you step down for a little bit. So it’s really managing the fatigue and making sure that folks come home safely, that’s going to be a number one priority for sure.

Miller: Are COVID-19 precautions still in place at fire camps and for firefighting teams?

Flory: We’re seeing the same trends that we’re seeing across the nation with an increase in infections beginning to show up. We had many new things that we did last fire season to mitigate that, and we’re going right back into that again. A lot of those things carried over and we were still doing, so I don’t want it to sound like we let our guard down with COVID, that’s definitely something that’s always been in our conversation. But we are very much aware that that’s an issue. And here we are in Planning Level Five, we need everybody that we can have for the season. So we’re working hard to make sure that we stay COVID safe as well.

Miller: One of the scariest things I’ve seen recently is the idea that a fire like the Bootleg Fire may not really be out or, or even really under control in a major way until there is a serious change in the weather, until heavy rains or even snow comes. It’s one thing to say that if this fire started in September, even late September. But if it starts in late June or early July, does that mean we can just expect this to keep burning for months and months?

Flory: I’m glad you brought that up. That’s something I’m hoping that the public understands because all of these fires are likely to- I shouldn’t say all of these fires, it depends on what they’re in, what kind of vegetation they’re in. But, there is a possibility, especially if it’s a fire in rugged terrain and timber, you’re going to continue to see smoke until a “season ending event”, is what we call it.

Usually, the good news is the smoke is in an area that’s been burned already,  and so it’s not gonna potentially restart and cause any issues. We do monitor those smokes, and we do infrared flights and all of those things to keep track of what’s still out there, what’s still warm. So we do our very best to leave a fire incident contained and mopped up as best we can, but there will be those holdover smoke zones, certain areas that’ll poof up under the right conditions.

Miller: That’s a kind of months long view, but just in terms of the next couple of days for the Bootleg Fire, what does the weather forecast look like in terms of what that’s going to mean for fire activity?

Flory: Unfortunately, the weather forecast looks not great because we have some weather patterns coming in that could produce some dry lightning, including that area over the Fremont-Winema National Forest, all of South Central and up through Central Oregon.

Dry lightning is not what we want or need right now, especially because the chance of ignition is high. We have our initial attack folks ready. We’ve known about this in the forecast. Thank goodness for technology and good weather predictions. It helps us a lot. But we have our initial attack folks ready, and it’ll just be that moving and adjusting of strategy and tactics to align with where we’re likely to have these new starts.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Elizabeth Castillo, Sage Van Wing