SPRAGUE RIVER — Youth pastor Matt Wolff and his wife, Jennifer, followed God’s direction when they settled at the end of a rutted dirt track in the pine forests above this Southern Oregon town.
And they have prayed in the past two weeks as the plume of smoke that started beyond their neighbor’s A-frame exploded into the largest of the dozens of wildfires currently burning in the West, a conflagration that has already consumed about 300,000 acres, destroyed at least 75 homes and other types of outbuildings, and shown no signs of stopping as hot, dry winds continue to scour Klamath County.
The Wolffs and many of their neighbors in a ribbon of conservative towns along the southern edge of the Bootleg Fire have chosen to stay home, despite the urging by authorities to evacuate. For these residents, the anxious days since the fire began have been spent under a thick blanket of smoke, watering down yards and watching the wind for signs the flames could turn their way.
“We prayed a lot,” Matt Wolff said. “’Lord, just keep it away.’ And so far it stayed that way.”
The West has been beset by historic drought and heat waves this year exacerbated by climate change, but among the small towns that have been threatened by the Bootleg Fire — Sprague River, Beatty, Bly — there is little talk of global warming. Instead, residents vent about the federal government’s water policies and forest management. They blame liberal environmentalists for hobbling the logging industry and Mexican marijuana farmers for sucking up the area’s water.
“Now the top end of the Forest Service are a bunch of flower children,” said Jim Rahi, 71, who was filling up his 3,600-gallon water tanker to deliver to firefighters in the town of Lakeview, east of the spreading fire. “That’s what the real problem is. It’s not that much hotter. It’s environmentally caused mismanagement.”
Fighting the country’s largest fire
The fire that is now larger than New York City prompted a furious effort by firefighters to protect vulnerable communities to the south and east of the spreading flames.
Around 2,000 firefighters and other personnel are battling the blaze that began July 6. As of Sunday, 22% of the fire had been contained. No deaths have been reported.
Bulldozers have been digging trenches as firebreaks, particularly on the southern flank, to protect the more populated areas, and helicopters have been hauling in bags of water.
The conditions for this early summer blaze are what firefighters are more accustomed to facing at the end of a hot dry season, said Mark Enty, a spokesman for the Northwest Incident Management Team 10, which is battling the fire. But climate change has made the West hotter and dryer; more than 94% of the region is now in a moderate to exceptional drought.
“Everything is as dry as it would be if it had the whole summer to dry out already,” he said. “Think about a grass fire and how fast fire will go through grass. Imagine that with 40-foot trees. This is doing the same thing.”
Residents in this area are accustomed to fire. Charred trees around Sprague River still stand from a forest fire that caused many to evacuate seven years ago. But even longtime residents and veteran firefighters have seen nothing like the Bootleg Fire.
“This is the biggest one ever,” said Dean Lawrence, 67, who used to work for the Forest Service and spent 25 years as the fire chief in Bly. “We have fires every year, but not to this magnitude.”
How has the climate changed?
Climate change driven by the human burning of fossil fuels has raised the Earth’s temperature an average of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, a warming that has led to more frequent and extreme natural disasters. Some 800 people died in the recent record-breaking heat waves in the Pacific Northwest and Canada.
This part of Southern Oregon has suffered intensely from the ongoing drought. The falling lake levels that feed the nearby Klamath Project, a farming community created by the federal government a century ago, have dropped beyond what is needed to protect endangered fish habitats, pushing federal officials to shut the floodgates that water farmers’ fields.
This has prompted weeks of angry protests led by conservative activists demanding the federal government release more water, including those people in the network of Ammon Bundy, who led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside Burns in 2016.
But despite the harm from fires and drought, many in this part of Oregon don’t place the blame on a changing climate. About 70% of Klamath County voted for former President Donald Trump in the past election, and residents often echo his skepticism on the topic.
“Global warming?” Lawrence said as he sat drinking coffee with three friends Wednesday morning around a table at the back of the Sycan Store in Bly.
“Yeah, right,” one of the others muttered.
The men chose to stay in their homes throughout the fire, convinced it would not spread across the irrigated fields between them and the burning forest.
Lawrence said he has 100 acres of land — “I’m sure it’s probably black” — as well as a hydroelectric plant that he hasn’t been able to check on. The Bootleg Fire has already interrupted major interstate transmission lines that run through Oregon and provide power to California.
The California Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s power grid, warned on Monday that transmission lines from Oregon were “still unreliable” and encouraged residents to conserve power. Electricity flows over the weekend had been reduced by as much as 3,500 megawatts, the operator said.
“Poor suckers now can’t charge their electric cars,” Lawrence said.
A community of volunteers, but tensions simmer
The wildfire has brought out generosity from neighbors without much to give. Many have volunteered their days at community centers and fairgrounds packing up produce and canned goods to distribute to those displaced and now sleeping on cots or inside churches. But the raw emotions of recent days has also ignited simmering tensions and fanned distrust in an area where some residents live armed and off the grid.
Some of the communities most vulnerable to the fire sit along two-lane roads that have populations in the hundreds. Off the pavement are remote settlements of prefabricated homes and trailers set amid marijuana greenhouses where people come and go, depending on the season. The Klamath County Sheriff’s Office recently warned that it would arrest or issue citations to people who defied evacuation orders.
About 2,000 people evacuated and have been displaced from their homes, authorities said. But many residents chose to stay in areas where evacuation was recommended. Several said they were afraid of theft, concerned about transporting their animals, or worried it might be difficult to return.
“I feel almost like COVID-kind of trapped out there, because somebody’s got to stay,” said Carol Davis, a retired hairdresser who lives in a solar-powered mobile home. She moved her horse to safer ground but has stayed home to be with her cats and dogs. “It’s not just the pot growers — we’ve got the seasonal-resident tweakers, and they will steal absolutely anything. They will steal your kids’ basketball if they think they can sell it for 50 cents.”
After the flames broke out, residents in the Klamath Forest Estates traded stories about outsiders impersonating firefighters and people on roving four-wheelers looking for opportunities to steal. Neighbors reported seeing black trash bags with red handles set outside evacuated homes as a signal for looters.
“We’re going around and pulling these trash bags,” Jennifer Wolff said. “We don’t want to see our neighbors get robbed.”
Klamath County emergency manager Brandon Fowler said there had been no reports of looting and that sheriff’s deputies were making regular patrols in communities near the blaze.
Outside his Plum Tuckered Out antique shop, Robert Tucker watered the flowers as smoke billowed in the distance. His store looked out on an abandoned gas station and shuttered hotel. The decline in these towns has been decades long, as logging jobs have gone away and residents moved out.
“When the mill pulled out the town dried up,” recalled Tucker, who has lived in Bly for 17 years. “This is what’s left of it. It’s just withering away.” He would be gone soon too; he planned to sell his store and move home to Kansas.
“Only good thing about it is it’s burned out the dope growers,” Emmet Kness, a 67-year-old fertilizer company employee, said of the fire.
Many in the area expressed concern about the proliferation of backwoods marijuana greenhouses. All through the Klamath Forest Estates community the grow operations are visible behind tarp fencing. Jennifer Wolff has counted 12 plots in her neighborhood being used to grow marijuana by workers who carry guns, all in the past year.
It is legal to grow marijuana and hemp in Oregon with proper licensing, but illegal grow operations have been increasingly prevalent in parts of Southern Oregon, leading to some recent raids by state authorities.
‘This is not good’
Since the fire began, the Wolffs have watched the glow over the hills behind their property as the flames have come closer and receded. They’ve packed up family photos, computers and important documents and set them by the front door if they have to leave in a moment’s notice.
Standing outside their home, as a pyrocumulous cloud loomed in the distance, a whirlwind suddenly spun up dust and a loud gust blew toward their house.
“Oh, this is not good,” Jennifer Wolff said.
On Wednesday evening, a few dozen Sprague River residents gathered at the community center for an update on the situation, as the arrow on the fire meter outside pointed to “extreme.” Men and women carried pistols on their belts; one man wore a cutoff T-shirt that read “Protected: The Right to Bear Arms.”
Klamath County Commissioner Donnie Boyd showed up with good and bad news. He had toured the Sycan Forest Estates community and estimated that at least 25 homes were destroyed by the fire and only three remained standing.
“It’s pretty well nuked,” he said.
But the fire also appeared to be heading away from the southern towns, he said Wednesday, and he expected that some communities under evacuation recommendations might soon return to normal and residents would be encouraged to return. “That doesn’t mean that something doesn’t happen ... that changes that,” Boyd said. “Because it’s all dependent on mother nature and God and how God pushes this fire around.”