KLAMATH FALLS - The nation’s largest wildfire torched more dry forest in Oregon and forced the evacuation of a wildlife research station Monday as firefighters had to retreat from the flames for the ninth consecutive day due to erratic and dangerous fire behavior.

Firefighters were forced to pull back as flames, pushed by winds and fueled by bone-dry conditions, jumped fire-retardant containment lines and pushed up to 4 miles into new territory, authorities said.

The destructive Bootleg Fire grew to more than 476 square miles, an area about the size of Los Angeles.

Fire crews were also rushing to corral multiple “slop fires” — patches of flames that escaped fire lines meant to contain the blaze — before they grew in size. One of those smaller fires was already nearly 4 square miles in size. Thunderstorms with dry lightning were possible Monday as well, heightening the dangers.

“We are running firefighting operations through the day and all through the night,” said Joe Hessel, incident commander. “This fire is a real challenge, and we are looking at sustained battle for the foreseeable future.”

On Monday, the fire reached the southern edge of Sycan Marsh, a privately owned wetland that hosts thousands of migrating birds and is a key research station on wetland restoration.

The blaze, which was 25% contained, has burned at least 67 homes and 100 buildings while threatening thousands more in a remote landscape of forests, lakes and wildlife refuges.

As of Monday, it was 343,755 acres in size and firefighters had 25 percent containment. More than 2,100 personnel are on site fighting the fire.

A fire slop over across the 28 Road is estimated to be over 2,500 acres in the Elder Creek area.

On the north edge, firefighters disengaged when the fire aggressively moved past retardant lines three to four miles north toward Long Creek.

Fire activity on the Log Fire was lessened by heavy smoke cover and firefighters were successful in limiting southeast growth toward Summer Lake with dozer lines.

The southeast flank of the fire from Preacher Flats to Mitchell Monument remains in patrol status. More firefighters have shifted to the north to support fire efforts near Silver Lake.

Firefighter separated from crew; recovered in good health

A firefighter became separated from his crew while working on the Bootleg Fire in Lake County overnight Sunday night. The incident occurred when the fire crew was working on containing spot fires in the Happy Camp area.

Crew members reported the individual as missing at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

The Zone 1 Incident Management Team immediately initiated a search mission. Incident aircraft and other resources were dispatched to help with the search. An incident helicopter spotted the firefighter at 8:20 pm but could not locate an adequate landing zone. Another firefighting crew joined in the search and located the separated firefighter.

Lake County Sheriff’s personnel also responded to the area and assisted with the search operation and extraction of the individual. The Rapid Extraction Module — a highly skilled and specially equipped team used to provide emergency medical services and extraction to firefighters on the line — was dispatched and assisted in the transport.

The firefighter was in good spirits and was able to hike to the road to a waiting ambulance, according to fire crews. Medical personnel transported the crew member to Lakeview Hospital for further medical evaluation.

Fire crews from Marion County, formed into Task Force 16, were relieved Saturday, July 17, from service on the Bootleg Fire. The local fire teams were assigned to protect houses and other structures and had been on duty since July 7. This photo from the scene is by Ryan Russell, Keizer Fire District division chief.

Recently, air quality in the Klamath Basin has drastically improved, and unless a new fire sprouts up somewhere nearby, current weather forecasts are showing Klamath Falls is in good shape when it comes to wildfire smoke blowing into the area.

Marc Spilde, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Medford, said given current conditions on the ground, Klamath Falls is due for little or no smoke in the air. Any smoke that does drift into the area will most likely come at night or the early morning, Spilde said. However, Spilde is cautiously optimistic when it comes to smoke, given things can change on a dime.

“Smoke is not an easy thing to forecast, it is dependent upon the wind and how much smoke the fire is outputting,” Spilde said.

Previously, the basin was a hot, smoky mess during the Lava, Tennant and Salt fires that burned in northern California, but now that those fires are largely contained and fizzling out, the Bootleg Fire is the major smoke producer, Spilde said.

There are also a couple of smaller fires burning in northern California and to the southeast in Reno, but most of the smoke is coming from the Bootleg to the northeast.

The northeast position of the fire, in conjunction with a south southwestern wind, is pushing all the smoke to the north and the east, creating smokey and unhealthy air quality for communities in that area.

“At this point the air quality advisory will be for Lake County,” Valeree Lane, public information officer at Klamath County Public Health said.

Lane said that as of this morning, the Oregon Health Authority has yet to record any spikes in hospital or clinic visits due to smokey conditions.

Tom Hottman, public information officer at Sky Lakes Medical Center, said currently there has not been any apparent increase in emergency visits to the hospital due to the lower air quality.

While air quality is expected to remain moderate for Klamath Falls, Sprague River, and Chiloquin, places like Paisley and Silver Lake will experience extremely unhealthy air quality, Lane said.

Lane suggested that, if possible, people in areas with unhealthy air quality, should seek cleaner air spaces.

Klamath County Public Health has organized a list of “cleaner air-cooling centers” around the county for residents to get some relief from the smoke. The centers are listed as follows:

Klamath County Library, Klamath County Fairgrounds, KlamatH Falls Senior Center and libraries in Bly, Bonanza, Chemult, Chiloquin, Gilchrist, Keno, Malin, Merrill, South Suburban and Sprague River.

As far as preparing for decreased air quality and smokey days as fire season progresses, Lane said Klamath County Public Health suggests drinking lots of water, and to use filtration devices at home. If a filtration device is not an option, Lane suggested improvising by duct taping a heating air filter to an inexpensive box fan. Instructional videos on how to fashion an improvised air filtration device, click the link here, and here.

“This is an event that we will be dealing with for an extended period of time,” Lane said. “Just because we haven't seen it yet, doesn’t mean we won’t see it."

Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather with lightning possible through at least Monday in both California and southern Oregon.

“With the very dry fuels, any thunderstorm has the potential to ignite new fire starts,” the National Weather Service in Sacramento, California, said on Twitter.

Extremely dry conditions and heat waves tied to climate change have swept the region, making wildfires harder to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

Firefighters said in July they were facing conditions more typical of late summer or fall.

Story published with permission from the Klamath Falls Herald and News.