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Only nature, through significant rain or snow, can extinguish huge Oregon fire, official says

The Bootleg Fire illuminates smoke at night near Bly, Ore., on July 16. (Payton Bruni/AFP/Getty Images)

A massive wildfire in southern Oregon has torched hundreds of thousands of acres, fueled by exceptional heat and drought conditions as it has burned for nearly two weeks. At this point, a fire official warns, it won’t be completely contained until there’s a significant change in the weather.

The Bootleg Fire is the largest of the blazes burning in the United States. It had burned more than 343,000 acres as of Monday evening.

The area has been plagued by extreme drought conditions and is under a red-flag warning because of high winds and low humidity — conditions that create high fire danger and are expected to continue.

“It is so dry out here on the ground that to be able to extinguish the fire completely, to be able to have what we call full containment of the fire, we are going to need Mother Nature’s help,” Katy O’Hara, a spokeswoman for the firefighting effort, told The Washington Post on Monday morning.

That means a “season-ending weather event,” which usually comes in the form of widespread wetting rain, significant wetting rain, or snow, O’Hara said.

In that part of southern Oregon, that kind of weather event is not expected until late fall, perhaps late October or November.

As of Monday evening, the fire was 25 percent contained.

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Fire experts said it’s increasingly common for a fire of this scale to need a weather change.

Maureen C. Kennedy, an assistant professor who focuses on fire ecology and forest management at the University of Washington at Tacoma, called it a “circular” problem.

“The reason the fire was able to get so large was because of the extreme weather contributing to it,” Kennedy said. “And we can’t suppress a wildfire — there’s difficulty under those extreme weather conditions.”

O’Hara said fire crews are expecting similar red-flag conditions, with high winds and low humidity, to continue for the next couple of days, further fueling the fire and posing a challenge for any management strategies.

“As we continue to have those conditions, we will be challenged to continue to get around this fire,” she said.

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Since the Bootleg Fire ignited July 6, authorities have warned about the weather’s effect on firefighting efforts. A fire update published Monday said the prior day had been the ninth consecutive day with “such extreme fire behavior that firefighters moved to safety zones and looked for opportunities to re-engage.”

“Weather’s really against us. It’s going to be hot, it’s going to be dry, and air’s going to be unstable, which helps the heat raise faster, which brings in more air — all things that are negative for firefighters and positive for fire,” John Flannigan, an operations section chief with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said in a Sunday briefing. “So it’s going to be a real battle today.”

Monday’s update said that given the conditions, fire growth is expected. On Sunday, further evacuations were implemented in Oregon’s Lake County because of the fire’s increased activity.

Daniel Leavell, an associate professor of practice at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, described the weather plaguing much of the West as “unheard of.”

“I’ve been in the West since the ’70s, and I’ve never experienced this,” said Leavell, who said he has 40 years of fire management experience. “The conditions are just ripe for burning. All the fuels have dried out and it burns, and as long as those weather conditions stay what they are, fuel will burn.”

Nearly two-thirds of the West is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the two most severe categories. The West this year has been beleaguered by historic drought conditions and major heat waves. One recent episode in the Pacific Northwest would have been “virtually impossible” without human-driven climate change, scientists found.

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O’Hara said fire crews have also had challenges with the terrain where the fire is located and being able to safely access some fire points. She added that future rain and snow may be especially helpful in interior parts of the fire, in pockets that could have more intense burning.

“Our top priority is always firefighter and public safety first,” she said. “Firefighters have to be able to not only get into an area but safely exit that area if something bad were to happen.”

Leavell said fire crews need to be “strategic.”

“Hopefully it’s smaller parts, but if parts of the fire are on rugged rocky terrain, in canyons, if parts are just not safe to directly deal with, you need to play defense and back off and let other resources deal with that,” he said. “And if you can’t, the only alternative is to wait for Mother Nature.”

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