‘This is not going to return to normal anytime soon’: Lightning could further fuel Oregon’s active fire season

By Sam Stites (OPB) and Monica Samayoa (OPB)
July 20, 2021 4:34 p.m. Updated: July 20, 2021 11:23 p.m.

State resources stretched thin as several fires continue to grow throughout and conditions remain unfavorable to firefighters.

Firefighters walk carrying gear and holding protective equipment.

Crews head out to engage the Bootleg Fire.

U.S. Forest Service via Inciweb

In a press conference Tuesday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown offered an update on efforts to fight several large wildfires burning across the state, including the Bootleg Fire in Klamath and Lake counties, which has now grown to nearly 400,000 acres and constitutes the nation’s largest conflagration.


“It’s mid July, and already nearly 450,000 acres have burned across the state. We currently have nine large fires burning in Oregon, including the country’s largest with the Bootleg Fire right now, the fourth largest fire to burn in Oregon since 1900, " Brown said.

Dry, windy weather and a chance of lightning have state leaders and fire experts on edge as they respond to new fires while many communities continue to recover from last year’s historic season.

According to Brown, more than 2,000 personnel are currently on the ground fighting the Bootleg Fire including logistical experts, communications and operations professionals, federal officials and teams called in from both California and Utah.

Brown stressed the importance of Oregonians remaining vigilant and prepared as many of the state’s wildfires come within dangerous proximity to Oregon communities.

“Last year’s historic fire season taught us that being prepared can truly be the difference between life and death. Being prepared is also one of the best ways you can help our frontline firefighters do their jobs,” Brown said. “If you take anything away from today, let it be this: make a plan with your family...and when you’re asked to evacuate. Please, just do it. Listen to the experts.”

Brown was joined by General Michael Stencel of the Oregon National Guard, State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz Temple, Oregon Department of Forestry fire protection chief Doug Grafe, state Office of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps, and Gabriela Goldfarb, environmental health section manager for the Oregon Health Authority.

Both Grafe and Ruiz Temple provided updates on current firefighting efforts and the threat they pose to both property and communities.

Grafe emphasized that drought conditions are driving fire potential, with 90% of the state map showing extreme or severe drought conditions. He also said that the heat dome of June 26-28, when much of the state saw temperatures soar well over 100 degrees, is playing a role in contributing tinderbox conditions and putting stress on the state’s firefighting infrastructure.

“This is not going to return to normal anytime soon,” Grafe said.

To date this season, Oregon has seen 580 fires burning more than 171,000 acres. That’s 17 times the state’s 10-year average 395 fires and 9,900 acres burned on lands protected by ODF.

On tribal and federal lands, the state is closing in on 500,000 acres burned in 1,000 fires.

The Bootleg Fire in Klamath and Lake counties swelled to more than 378,000 acres as of Tuesday morning, an increase of around 80,000 acres overnight. The fire remained at 30% containment, as fire lines along the western and southern sides continued to hold.

“The east side remains problematic and that’s where we would expect. It’s possible to see another 50,000-100,000 acres to the east,” Grafe said. “That fire has been stepping up on us and just been resistant.”

The Bootleg Fire, which started July 6, is currently the largest in the country. Its intense heat and massive smoke column are capable of producing their own weather system; the fire has generated multiple pyrocumulus clouds, and an extreme “firestorm” cloud, known as a pyrocumulonimbus, that generated high winds and lightning strikes.


Related: Oregon wildfire forms ‘fire clouds’ that pose danger below

According to an AP report Tuesday, officials with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon are asking for more outside crews to be ready should there be a surge in fire activity there.

“Although the lightning activity predicted for early this week is expected to occur east of us, we are prepared for the worst, and hoping for the best,” Mike McCann, assisting with fire response, said Monday in a statement released by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

According to AP, the worry is that dry conditions, a drought and the recent record-breaking heat wave in the region have created tinderbox conditions, so resources like fire engines are being recruited from places like Arkansas, Nevada and Alaska.

State Fire Marshal Marianne Ruiz Temple said at Tuesday’s briefing with the governor that her office remains part of the unified command on the Bootleg Fire. She spoke specifically to the impacts of that fire to structures and communities.

“Our primary mission to date is working to help with our wildland partners to help secure those lines and contain this fire in and around communities and structures,” Ruiz Temple said. “The southeast side, we’ve done some significant work there. We are starting to feel more comfortable with that side. … The east side continues to be problematic, as it is as it bumps up on the Winter Rim. I wanted to let folks know, that are in and around this community, that there is a significant focus in protecting structures in the Summer Lake, Silver Lake and Paisley areas”

Ruiz Temple said that fire has moved about 70 miles since it sparked two weeks ago, but officials are feeling more secure in those areas than they did Sunday.

To put the scale of the Bootleg Fire in context, Grafe pointed out that the Lionshead Fire in the Santiam Canyon last year was 204,000 acres. The Bootleg Fire is closing in on double that.

Officials at Tuesday’s wildfire briefing also offered updates on other fires across the state.

Elbow Creek Fire

The Elbow Creek Fire in Wallowa County was at 16,000 acres and 15% contained as of Tuesday morning. Grafe said the incident command on that fire is also feeling more confident than they were previously, and they expect the coming two days could be a turning point in getting it under control.

The 2,000-foot drop into the river canyon provides unique challenges, he added.

“We’ve got winds this afternoon and the following day today. We’re experiencing some more potential lightning, which may cause initial attack stress in that region,” Grafe said. " We need a few more resources up in that region and we’re pushing them that way as best we can today.”

Grandview Fire

The Grandview Fire was at 6,000 acres and 72% containment as of Tuesday morning. Responsibility for that fire will be turned over to local officials on Thursday, Grafe said.

Ruiz Temple said that the Grandview Fire is one of the success stories of this fire season so far, thanking both local responders and those within the unified command for their efforts in getting it to a place where larger resources could be turned elsewhere and remaining work mopped up by local crews.

Ruiz Temple also highlighted that significant investments in firefighting — including the legislature’s $200 million investment in this year’s omnibus package, Senate Bill 762 — have contributed to added capacity within both ODF and State Marshal’s Office to use the “one critical strike strategy” that they were able to use on the Grandview Fire.

“It allows us to search local resources during local initial attacks in the hopes of keeping fire small and away from communities,” she said. “And I believe that investment, along with the local mutual aid local, ODF and our federal partners, really was instrumental in keeping this fire small.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included a chart that claimed to display the biggest wildfires in Oregon history. The chart, provided by the Associated Press, only included large fires of the past 20 years.