Monster Wildfire Shows The Benefits Of Years Of Forest Management Efforts: NPR

An oil tanker drops a retarder over the Bootleg fire in southern Oregon on Saturday.

Bootleg fire incident control via AP


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Bootleg fire incident control via AP


An oil tanker drops a retarder over the Bootleg fire in southern Oregon on Saturday.

Bootleg fire incident control via AP

PORTLAND, Oregon – Environmentalists in a vast region of wetlands and forests in remote Oregon have spent the past decade thinning out saplings and using planned fires to try to restore thick stands of beetle to a state less prone to fire.

This week, the biggest burning forest fire in the country provided them with an unexpected and real experience. As the huge blaze half the size of Rhode Island roared in the Sycan Marsh reserve, firefighters said the flames leapt less from treetops to treetops and instead returned to the ground, where they were easier to fight, moved slower, and did less damage to the overall forest.

The initial assessment suggests that the many years of forest treatments worked, said Pete Caligiuri, Oregon forest program director for The Nature Conservancy, who leads research in the reserve.

“Generally speaking, what the firefighters reported on the ground was that when the fire entered the areas that had been cleared… it had a lot less impact.”

The reports were bittersweet for the researchers, who still saw nearly 20 square miles of the reserve burn, but the findings add to a growing body of research on how to make wildfires less explosive by clearing up the under -wood and allowing forests to burn periodically – as they naturally would – instead of putting out every flame.

The Bootleg Fire is burning in the background behind the Sycan Marsh. The Bootleg Fire is one of the largest in modern Oregon history.

Bootleg fire incident control via AP


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Bootleg fire incident control via AP


The Bootleg Fire is burning in the background behind the Sycan Marsh. The Bootleg Fire is one of the largest in modern Oregon history.

Bootleg fire incident control via AP

The Bootleg Fire, now 606 square miles (1,569 square kilometers), ravaged southern Oregon and is the fourth largest blaze in the state’s modern history. It expanded up to 6 kilometers per day, driven by gusts of wind and extremely dry weather that turned the trees and undergrowth into powder kegs.

Fire crews had to withdraw from the flames for 10 consecutive days as fireballs leap from treetop to treetop, trees explode, embers fly past the fire to start new fires and, in some cases, the heat of hell creates its own weather of changing winds and dry lightning. Monstrous clouds of smoke and ash rose up to 6 miles into the sky and are visible over 100 air miles away.

The fire in the Fremont-Winema National Forest merged with a smaller blaze nearby on Tuesday, and it repeatedly pierced a perimeter of treeless, fire-retardant land intended to stop its progress.

Further evacuations were ordered Monday evening and a red flag weather warning indicating dangerous fire conditions was in effect until Tuesday. The fire is 30% contained.

Columns of smoke rise from the Bootleg Fire on Sunday.

Bootleg fire incident control via AP


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Bootleg fire incident control via AP


Columns of smoke rise from the Bootleg Fire on Sunday.

Bootleg fire incident control via AP

“We’re in there for as long as it takes to safely contain this monster,” Incident Commander Rob Allen said on Tuesday.

At least 2,000 homes have been evacuated at one point during the fire and 5,000 more threatened. At least 70 houses and more than 100 outbuildings caught fire. Thick smoke suffocates the area where residents and wildlife have already faced months of drought and extreme heat. Nobody died.

The Bootleg Fire was one of many fires that burned in a dozen states, most of them in the West. Sixteen large, uncontrolled fires burned down in the states of Oregon and Washington alone on Monday.

Historically, wildfires in Oregon and elsewhere in the western United States have burned an area as large or larger than the current blaze more frequently but much less explosively. Periodic and natural fires have cleared the undergrowth and smaller trees that make today’s fires burn so dangerously.

These fires have not been allowed to burn for the past 120 years, said James Johnston, a researcher at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry who studies historic wildfires.

The area on the northeast flank of the Bootleg Fire is in the ancestral homeland of the Klamath tribes, who used intentional and managed fire to keep the fuel charge low and prevent such explosive fires. Scientists at the Sycan Marsh Research Station are now working with the tribe and building on this knowledge.

Climate change is the catalyst for worsening wildfire seasons in the West, Johnston said, but poor forest management and decades of fire suppression policy have made matters worse.

The Bootleg fire burns behind heavy equipment at the Mitchell Monument in southern Oregon on Saturday.

Bootleg fire incident control via AP


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Bootleg fire incident control via AP


The Bootleg fire burns behind heavy equipment at the Mitchell Monument in southern Oregon on Saturday.

Bootleg fire incident control via AP

“My colleagues and I have been planning a massive fire in this area for years. It is an area exceptionally prone to catastrophic fires,” said Johnston, who is not affiliated with Sycan Marsh. “It’s dry. It’s fire prone and always has been. But what has changed over the past 100 years is an extraordinary amount of fuel buildup.”

Elsewhere, fire teams were engaged in other formidable battles.

In northern California, authorities expanded evacuations for the Tamarack fire in Sierra Nevada Alpine County to include the mountain town of Mesa Vista on Monday evening. That blaze, which exploded over the weekend, was 61 square miles (158 square kilometers) without containment.

On the western side of the Sierra, the Dixie Fire burned 63 square miles (163 square kilometers), threatening tiny communities in the Feather River Valley area.

Meteorologist Julia Ruthford said in a briefing that a surge of monsoon humidity from the southwest increased atmospheric instability on Sunday and Monday, creating plumes exceeding 6 miles – so large that the blaze generated a thunderstorm on itself, throwing lightning bolts and gusts of wind.

Over the past two days in Oregon, fire has danced around Sycan Marsh, where researchers rushed to protect buildings with sprinklers and lines of fire. The 47 square mile habitat attracts migratory and nesting birds and provides a unique location for forest and fire ecology research.

The association operates its own fire trucks and holds federal firefighting certification. It now has three of its own engines and seven firefighters on the fire and more and more people are arriving from North Carolina and Florida to try to save the reserve.

“It’s an amazing place,” Caligiuri said. “It’s very difficult to see all of this happening, and seeing all of this work threatened by this fire is a lot to deal with.”


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