FILE — Bootleg Fire night
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, the Bootleg Fire burns at night near Highway 34 in southern Oregon on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

(The Center Square) – The Bootleg Fire is now the third-largest wildfire on record in Oregon as firefighters gain more air support in combating the country's largest inferno.

Oregon Wing Civil Air Patrol officials have announced seven of its pilots will be joining the fight against the 400,000-acre wildfire. The emergency service is a common sight in northwest natural disasters and offered logistical services in the aftermath of the 2020 wildfire season. That was all after the flames had died down. Instead of mapping out the damage, the air patrol is helping on-the-ground radio assistance for the more than 2,300 firefighters at the scene.

The news coincides with word the so-called "monster fire" is 40% contained, fire officials said. Since it was first reported July 6, the fire, which can be seen from space, has charred at least 70 homes and 117 buildings. It's burning 28 miles northeast of Klamath Falls, a town of some 22,000 people. 

"Our firefighters have put in an incredible amount of hard work on this fire," said Joe Hessel, incident commander for the Oregon Department of Forestry Incident Management Team. "The fire continues to throw challenges at us, and we are going to continue to stay vigilant, work hard and adapt."

The Bootleg Fire, which fire officials now attribute to a lighting strike, equals the span of Oklahoma City and is the biggest fire Oregon has seen this century. Only southern Oregon's 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire in 2002 and southeast Oregon's Long Draw Fire in 2002 scorched more land. Some 2,000 households in Lake and Klamath counties remain under evacuation and 5,000 more are threatened.

New evacuation orders of "Go Now" were issued Thursday for Wallowa County's Promise and Eden Bench communities. Current evacuation information is available via the Wallowa County Sheriff's Office.

Level 1 "Be Ready" evacuation orders for areas south of Highway 140 from the Lake county line are now lifted. Previous Level 2 "Get Set" evacuation orders west of Ivory Pine Road, including the Oregon Pines areas, are reduced to Level 1 notices. All other evacuation levels remain in place, according to INCIWEB.

Shifting winds and cooler temperatures induced by the wildfire smoke blanketing the region have helped fire crews gain a foothold on the Bootleg Fire. Firefighters are growing more confident their newfound gains will help them move closer into the inferno. Fire crews dismantled the command post Friday at Chiliquin High School about 55 miles north of the Bootleg Fire, setting up shop in Klamath Falls at Klamath Community College. 

Another concern for fire crews on the ground are nine new COVID cases reported on Thursday by Bootleg Fire Incident Command. Fire officials said on Friday the nine firefighters in question are isolated and face masks will be required at camp for the first time since Oregon lifted most of its COVID rules on June 30. Vaccinations are not required for personnel assigned to the state's fire camps, according to Gov. Brown's office.

Wildfire season continues to hamper summer activities. The Oregon Department of Forestry ordered a campfire ban in state parks and forests east of Interstate 5, including designated campground fire pits and rings.

The Bootleg Fire is among a dozen major wildfires statewide. Its rival, the Elbow Creek fire, has swelled to 19,993 acres, making it Oregon’s second-largest fire. It was 20% contained as of Friday morning.

In Oregon, winds have blown much of its wildfire smoke as far east as New York City and Philadelphia where hazardous airborne chemicals have blacked out the skies. Air quality in areas near southern Oregon's Silver Lake, Summer Lake and Paisley are forecast to improve with some periods of smoke expected to continue into the afternoon and evening.

Central and western Oregon are forecast to have good air quality into next week as light winds drive smoke to into valleys and drainages. Chiloquin, Lakeview and the Sprague River Valley could see smoke linger for the next few days.

Oregonians can see where evacuation levels in Lake and Klamath Counties stand right now in southern Oregon here