Oregon's growing Bootleg fire is one of 70 now raging in US West -- where another heatwave looms
Fire from the Bootleg Fire illuminates smoke at night near Bly, Oregon, July 16, 2021. © Payton Bruni, AFP

Bolstering the case for meaningful action to address the climate emergency, the out-of-control Bootleg Fire that began on July 6 in southern Oregon has scorched more than 280,000 acres and is only 22% contained. It is the nation's largest wildfire so far this year, and one of 70 large blazes currently torching the U.S. West, which is bracing for yet another heatwave.

To put Bootleg's destructiveness into perspective, the fire—one of 10 burning in Oregon alone—has spread over 25,000 acres per day on average, or more than 1,000 acres every hour. According to CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller, "That's an area larger than the area of Central Park each hour, or a rate of a football field burned every five seconds" for 11 days.

As the Washington Post reported Friday:

The Bootleg Fire's expansion has destroyed 117 outbuildings and 67 residences in Klamath County, said Holly Krake, a spokeswoman for the Bootleg Fire Incident Management Team. The fire is still raging in Lake County, home to a population of more than 7,000 residents, and the damage is being assessed, she said.
As of Friday, Krake said, some 2,000 residents across both counties had been evacuated, with over 5,000 residences threatened by the growing flames.
With an unprecedented wildfire season underway, the American Red Cross has opened four shelters throughout the state, said Chad Carter, the organization's Oregon regional communications director. He said they are prepared to open more if needed.

"We are all planning for this to be a prolonged event this summer," Carter told the Post. "We've got several shelters open right now, and we'll continue to adjust based on the need throughout the summer."

In addition to causing displacement, state officials said the fire has endangered parts of the power grid, specifically transmission lines that carry electricity to California, CNN reported.

Alison Green, public affairs director for the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshals, told the Post that "we are seeing conditions that we usually see in mid-August. It's been extreme fire behavior over the last week that has created conditions that are certainly challenging."

In an online update, Rob Allen, incident commander for the Pacific Northwest Area Incident Management Team 2, noted that "the Bootleg Fire perimeter is more than 200 miles long. That's an enormous amount of line to build and hold."

Given its massive size and quick-moving pace, Ryan Berlin, a Bootleg Fire Zone 1 information officer, told the Post that there's "a pretty good possibility" the Bootleg Fire could merge with the smaller Log Fire, which on Thursday "blew up also."

"My colleagues in Congress have to understand. We don't have 30 years. It's now or never."
—Rep. Jamaal Bowman

While the spark that caused the Bootleg Fire remains under investigation, very dry fuel is abundant in Oregon and throughout the western U.S., where a dozen states are battling 70 active wildfire complexes.

For weeks, the region has suffered from record-high temperatures and a worsening drought. The severely hot and dry weather, which scientists say is inseparable from climatic disruptions driven by the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, has created the conditions for an especially catastrophic wildfire season that experts warn is far from over.

The deadly heatwave that recently pummeled the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada—described by a pair of climate scientists as "the most extreme in world weather records"—killed nearly 800 people in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, along with over one billion intertidal animals.

According to a rapid-response analysis conducted by a team of researchers, the dangerously high temperatures that helped make last month the hottest June in North America in recorded history "would have been virtually impossible" in the absence of the past two centuries of extracting and burning coal, oil, and gas—the primary source of growing carbon pollution.

Park Williams, a climate scientist at UCLA, on Friday said the same thing about the wave of wildfires now ravaging communities and ecosystems throughout the western U.S.

"We wouldn't be seeing this giant ramp up in fire activity as fast as it is happening without climate change," Williams told the New York Times. "There's just no way."

"Drought and high heat," the Times noted Friday, "can kill trees and dry out dead grass, pine needles, and any other material on the bottom of the forest floor that act as kindling when a fire sweeps through a forest."

According to Joe Hessel, an incident commander for the Oregon Department of Forestry, "This fire is going to continue to grow—the extremely dry vegetation and weather are not in our favor."

Hessel's ominous warning came as the U.S. West's fourth heatwave in five weeks got under way in the northern Rockies and High Plains. Axios reported that from Saturday through at least Wednesday, temperatures in the area are expected to hit 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit above average.

Experts fear that the impending high-pressure system, known as a "heat dome," could exacerbate existing fires or contribute to the formation of new ones.

According to the Times, parts of Idaho (17 active large fires), Montana (13), Wyoming (2), and Utah (1) could be hit with triple-digit highs over the weekend and into early next week, with temperatures peaking on Monday.

Ironically, one factor that could suppress temperatures slightly is a hazy sky due to smoke from nearby wildfires. CNN reported earlier this week that as a result of the ongoing blazes in the western U.S., most of the country, including states as far away as New York, "could see at least light surface-level wildfire smoke." The news outlet noted that Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Minnesota issued air quality alerts.

According to the Post: "A major concern on Sunday and Monday is the prospect of dry thunderstorms, from the Sierra Nevada mountain range northward through much of northern Nevada, eastern Idaho, and central Montana. These storms could unleash cloud-to-ground lightning that ignites new blazes."

Although he was pointing to this week's devastating flooding in Germany and Belgium, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) could just as easily have been talking about the heatwaves, drought conditions, and fires clobbering the U.S. West when he said Saturday that "we are living through a climate catastrophe."

Last week, climate justice advocates from the Sunrise Movement alluded to several extreme weather events and fossil fuel disasters that have occurred recently in the U.S. and came to the conclusion that "the time for incrementalism is over."

Bowman amplified that message on Saturday, saying: "My colleagues in Congress have to understand. We don't have 30 years. It's now or never."

"We have to redesign our economy to respond to the current crisis and to ensure it doesn't get much, much worse," he added.