FILE — Bootleg fire cloud

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, is seen over the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

(The Center Square) – Oregon Gov. Kate Brown offered a warning to Oregonians on Tuesday about the threat of the Bootleg Fire: start thinking about evacuations now.

In the two weeks since it was first reported in Klamath County on July 6, the fire has swelled to 388,359 acres according to INCIWEB. It's added an average of 27,714 acres a day and overwhelmed fire crews that have spent the past 10 days retreating from it for their own safety.

The Bootleg Fire has destroyed at least 70 homes and 100 buildings, according to local authorities. It's 30% contained, but Brown offered little hope the inferno will ease soon. At least 2,000 households have been evacuated with 5,000 more in danger.

"We must be prepared, each and every one of us," Brown said. "Last year's historic fire season taught us that being prepared can truly be the difference between life and death. Get two weeks ready. And when you're asked to evacuate, please just do it."

The Klamath County Sheriff's Office has threatened anyone violating evacuation orders with arrest. No related arrests have been reported.

At 606 square miles or the span of Oklahoma City, the Bootleg Fire is the fourth-largest blaze in Oregon history. It outmatches any of the historic fires in 2020, which blackened more than 1 million acres, but is behind 2012's 558,000-acre Long Draw Fire. Fire officials said they want to make sure the 2,250 firefighters on the ground in Klamath pace themselves for a summer-long battle.

"Fighting this fire is a marathon, not a sprint," said Rob Allen, incident commander for PNW Incident Management Team 2. "We're in this for as long as it takes to safely confine this monster."

Fire crews fighting the Jack Fire in Douglas County near Highway 138 E for the past two weeks are among the few in the state seeing progress. The fire was 55% contained as of Monday, according to INCIWEB, after burning 18,039 acres.

Among the issues discussed by Brown and state officials during Tuesday's virtual news briefing was the state of Oregon's forest management practices, namely its prescribed fires. The age-old practice sees firefighters set small, contained fires to destroy underbrush and other fuels that could spark or fuel a greater wildfire.

According to the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), the state has sped up its prescribed burns every fire season. Statewide, Oregon ignited 200,629 acres in 2019 – or a 14% increase above the state's 10-year average of 175,942 acres.

The southeastern U.S. historically sets the most prescribed fires. In the western U.S., the practice has been slow to catch on. By comparison, Florida burned 2 million acres through prescribed burns last year. A 2019 paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Fire by the University of Idaho's Crystal Kolden contends federal spending on prescribed burns have fallen in the past decade. 

"What we typically invest in when it comes to wildfires is response and being ready," ODF Fire Protection Chief Doug Grafe said. "Fire is a natural part of our environment and being able to put prescribed fire in the spring and the fall when it’s safe, reducing that fuel condition, we're really working towards that in all western states."

The National Interagency Fire Center reported Sunday at least 80 active large fires were burning nationwide. Sixteen of them are raging around the northwest.

Oregon's hot fire season has seen Brown issue states of emergency for six fires this year, including the Bootleg Fire. The Elbow Creek Fire, burning 31 miles southeast of Walla Walla, Washington, is the state's latest major fire at 16,000 acres. It was 10% contained Tuesday morning.

Brown’s Emergency Conflagration Act on Friday ushered in more resources to the fire, currently staffed by 343 personnel.

Oregonians can sign up for local alerts at oralert.gov and find more information about the state's active wildfires at wildfire.oregon.gov

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.