Bootleg Fire

Pyrocumulus Clouds seen off in the distance on Wednesday, July 14 in Klamath Falls.

While the nation’s largest wildfire, right here in Oregon, is ravaging the land it crosses, it’s also fascinating to watch as it marches east across grasslands and lodgepole pine timber and possibly into the Gearhart Wilderness — the first such wilderness designation in the U.S.

The two-week-old Bootleg Fire is now over 600 square miles — 388,000 acres — and showing no signs of slowing down. It started some 40 miles northeast of Klamath Falls and has marched across much of southeast Oregon towards the towns of Paisley, Lakeview and Summer Lake. It has burned about 70 homes and more than 100 outbuildings.

Of note is that this fire is creating its own weather system. Huge pyrocumulous clouds, likened to thunderheads, rise from the fire each late afternoon as the sun heats the area. One can view these clouds literally blow up in a matter of minutes. They can sport lightning, too, and spark new fires. And, they can create what’s known as fire tornadoes, but none has been reported yet.

As evening approaches, the clouds collapse within minutes, dissipating as the sun sinks. Yet, the fire burns on.

The vastness of the fire is remarkable in that it is now the size of Los Angeles (recently surpassing the size of New York City) yet the population in this area is sparce. It’s another reminder of how vast parts of Eastern Oregon really are — and often ignored by the metropolitan areas. Even states such as Montana have small towns connected by roads every 20 miles or so. Not in Eastern Oregon. That, in a way, is good news. There’s been no fatalities from this fire, and firefighters have been pulled off the fire lines several times as a safety measure.

Bend, Redmond, Sisters and La Pine have all had small brushes with wildfire — by comparison to the Bootleg — in the last several weeks. It’s a reminder that defensible space is a real thing.

A good example of why defensible space is important is the story of Bill Ganong of Klamath Falls. A retired water rights attorney, Ganong has a home near the North Fork of the Sprague River, in an area swept up by the Bootleg.

He had one advantage, firefighters were camped near there and helped defend his property and several others’ against the blaze. But for years, he also cleared the 276-acre Buck Camp Ranch of brush and debris around his home.

Ganong told the Herald and News newspaper that the firefighter efforts were crucial to saving the property, but he also said years of forest management work he and his family have done in the area, in consultation with the Oregon Department of Forestry, made the property more defensible.

Over the years, Ganong said he has secured federal grants available to private landowners via the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that helped him pay for machine and diesel costs related to removing juniper and thinning his family’s forest generally. ODF foresters have been happy to consult with him, he said.

“If we hadn’t done all that work, the fire would’ve been so hot, it would’ve all been gone,” Ganong said.

The tale is reason enough that homeowners who choose to build in the forest take advantage of the forest management resources available to defend their property against wildfire.

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