AROUND OREGON: Bootleg Fire hits full containment, but works continues

KLAMATH FALLS – After burning for 39 days, the Bootleg Fire is now under the full containment of fire crews.

The determination Sunday night marked the likely end of growth on Oregon’s third-largest wildfire since 1900, which burned over more than 400,000 acres of national forest and grazing allotments in Klamath and Lake counties.

The total acreage on the Bootleg Fire is currently 413,717 acres, Tamara Schmidt, public affairs officer for the Forest Service on the Fremont-Winema National Forest said. The current count is that the fire destroyed 161 residences and 247 other structures.

”This isn’t the end of the Bootleg Fire,” Schmidt said. “Its a case of we are still going to be telling stories coming from the fire interior.”

Currently, there are five engines still dedicated to the Bootleg. Teams are assessing and collecting data from within the burn zone, which will guide the critical work moving forward, she said. Assessments will include roads, facilities, and soil and range conditions.

”It’s going to be a long process,” Schmidt said. “It’s an unprecedented year. With the Bootleg, those were conditions that firefighters have never seen before.”

The destruction left in the fire’s wake will have profound long-term effects on local communities, and the full extent of the damage won’t be determined for some time. Smoke is expected to continue to rise from the Bootleg’s immense burn zone, at least until the first snow. And emergency closures remain in effect through much of the fire area.

The Bootleg Fire started on July 6 after a round of lightning storms on the Fremont-Winema National Forest, about 15 miles northwest of the town of Beatty, sparked what would become for a time the largest conflagration in the American West.

As the Bootleg grew quickly, it began to spread out of control, sending residents fleeing, and baffling veteran firefighters who could not recall seeing such consistently fierce fire behavior. Residents living on the forest were forced to evacuate, and the areas around the fire’s rapidly growing perimeter were closed off to the public and patrolled by local authorities and the National Guard.

Wildlife, cattle, homes, trailers, vehicles and other property were scorched to a crisp as the flames spread through the forest, and local ranchers and landowners are only just now starting to pick up the pieces.

For those who had property damaged by the Bootleg Fire, it will take time for that to be assessed. And real answers likely won’t come until the spring, especially for ranchers and grazing permit holders.

“Once we are able to get in there to assess the damage, it could be that there are so many dead and downed trees and there is no access to the area,” Ria Suarez, rangeland management specialist on the Fremont-Winema National Forest said. “It is definitely a kind of wait-and-see situation right now.”

Suarez said picking up the pieces post-Bootleg will have to commence on a case by case basis. While some areas in the burn zone fared better than others, Suarez said she can’t make any promises to grazing permit holders at this time.

“Fingers crossed that it does look good and that we get a better winter this year than we did last year,” she said. “It really depends on how hot it burned … if it scorched the top layer of soil really badly it might take a year or two (for grasses to return). That would include having to do reseeding. If it burned through really nicely, and it didn’t get really hot, we could see possible use next year.”

Suarez said having cattle turned out on burned lands is most likely a good thing for restoration, however, there are many things that must be considered prior.

“Studies show land comes back with better grass vegetation if the brush vegetation is grazed the first year after a fire,” she said.

Suarez said many of her permittees are concerned, but she will try to get them back out on the land as soon as possible.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to figure something out to mitigate the loss,” she said. “We’ll know if we can turn out in spring, because it all depends on Mother Nature, and how much snow and rain we have.”

Kenny Say, the sales manager at the Klamath Livestock Auction, said there’s a lot of cattle coming to town lately.

“My phone is ringing off the hook,” he said.

Say said he’s been working the auction for 25 to 30 years, but has never seen it as busy as it is now.

“A lot are selling out completely,” Say said of local ranchers. “Other people are lightening up, selling their calves.”

One of the driving factors for the mass sell-off, Say said, is a local spike in hay prices caused by the widespread wildfires, and the lack of water needed to grow food to sustain animals throughout the fall and winter. Those who are fortunate to have hay on hand will have to start feeding earlier than usual if their grazing allotments were destroyed by the Bootleg. And now, due to high costs, buying has become unsustainable for many.

Suzanne Gallagher, who ranches her land near Highway 140 and Sprague River Road, said she will most likely have to buy hay to sustain her cattle throughout the winter.

The Bootleg Fire forced Gallagher to evacuate her allotment last month, leaving her cattle to fend for themselves. Once it was safe to go back up, she and her son-in-law set off in search of all the animals, killing those that were too injured to survive.

The widespread devastation has changed the outlook for many ranchers who sustained damage due to the fire.

Gallagher said she put up her own hay, and hasn’t had to buy yet. But it won’t last through the winter.

The hay shortage, Gallagher said, is due to the farmers who were unable to access the water necessary to grow. That caused supply to drop and the price to go up.

“It’s a vicious cycle … it is affecting everybody,” she said.

The state’s request for federal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the Patton Meadow Fire currently burning in Lake County was approved by the agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a statement issued Monday.

The federal funding was approved after FEMA Region 10 Acting Regional Administrator, Vincent Maykovich determined the Patton Meadow Fire threatened to cause enough destruction to constitute a major disaster.

That makes it the third fire management assistance grant approved by FEMA in 2021 to assist with Oregon wildfires.

The state requested the funding after it was determined the Patton Meadow Fire threatened homes in and around the community of Lakeview, as well as power lines, cultural resources in the Klamath Basin, and critical communications equipment including radio repeaters, law enforcement networks and a cellular tower, the release said.

In addition to the assistance grant, FEMA will provide the state with another $584,083 to be used for fire mitigation efforts.

An air quality advisory for Klamath and Lake counties have been extended through Tuesday morning, the Department of Environmental Quality said in a release Monday.

The source of the smoke in the area is from the Patton Meadow Fire as well as other fires burning within the Fox Complex near the town of Lakeview.

Smoke levels can shift rapidly depending on the weather, and health officials warn certain individuals including infants, young children, older adults, pregnant woman, and people with heart or lung disease, are at the highest risk from smoke exposure. The DEQ recommends doing the following to protect yourself and your family when smoke levels are high:

A total of 831 fire personnel are working to suppress the Antelope Fire in Northern California, which has grown to 54,742 acres, prompting the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office to issue evacuation orders and warnings for several communities.

An evacuation center has been set up at the Kahtishraam Wellness Center at 1403 Kahtishraam in Yreka, Calif.

The Antelope Fire, which was sparked on Aug. 1 by a lightning strike on the Klamath National Forest, is 27% contained as of Monday.

Steven La-Sky, public information officer for the Antelope Fire, said fire behavior is pretty erratic at the moment.

”This fire has been wind driven from the get go,” La-Sky said. “That’s why we are getting all these different runs in different directions making it really difficult for crews to get a handle on it.”

Thunderstorms in the area could possibly produce strong and erratic outflow winds, and lightning, which remain the greatest threats for the fire. Temperatures will remain in the 90s, with only a slight chance for rain.

”We are hoping for more favorable weather conditions, but these winds are the biggest challenge… the wind keeps blowing it out of the parameter, and we just get spotted,” La-Sky said.

”We still aren’t out of the woods here. The fire is moving,” La-Sky added.

The Klamath National Forest has issued a forest closure due to both the Antelope Fire and the Tennant Fire, which started in late June.

The most up to date evacuation information can be found online here.

As of Monday, the Antelope Fire has closed areas west of Road 10 and Forest Service Road 49 in Lava Beds National Monument. At this time, Lava Beds is not under an evacuation order, but will continue to update the public on any additional closures as well as when areas will reopen, the park said in a release.

— Reporter Joe Siess can be reached at (541) 885-4481 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jomsiess

NOTE: This story is published with the permission as part of a collaborative of news organizations in Oregon sharing news content. The Malheur Enterprise is part of the arrangement.

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