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Southern Oregon’s Bootleg Fire doubles again, threatening transmission lines, firefighters and loc

The Bootleg Fire northeast of Klamath Falls, sending smoke into the sky from above a ridgeline. Image dated July 8, 2021.
The Bootleg Fire northeast of Klamath Falls, sending smoke into the sky from above a ridgeline. Image dated July 8, 2021.

An intensifying Southern Oregon wildfire is disrupting power transmission to California and the Southwest, precisely when it’s most desperately needed to keep people cool in the midst of a heat wave.

The Bootleg Fire blew up to nearly 153,535 acres, racing through the Fremont-Winema National Forest’s heavy timber, which has been made more flammable by drought conditions. It forced level 2 and level 3 evacuation orders for residents northeast of Klamath Falls to “get ready” or “go now.”

The fire’s rapid growth and unpredictability required fire crews to fall back to predetermined safety zones. High temperatures, dry conditions and gusty afternoon winds were expected to continue to drive the fire. And it is leading to a power transmission crisis that is likely to last for several more days, at least, as the fire burns out of control directly in the path of a major interstate transmission line.

The fire burned about 8 miles along a high-voltage power corridor known as the California-Oregon intertie, a series of three parallel, high-voltage lines that supply Northwest and Canadian hydropower to the grid in California. About 15 miles remain squarely in its path.

Damage to the intertie has forced BPA to cut its capacity down to 428 megawatts — enough to power 341,000 Northwest homes for a year and about 10% of what would be traveling down the line under normal conditions.

On Sunday, a Bonneville Power Administration spokesman said that due to the interconnected nature of the system, it had also been forced to cut transmission on an additional line, the Pacific DC intertie, by about half, further reducing electricity deliveries to California.

“We have not had an opportunity to get out and look at the lines that have been impacted by the fire, because it’s still unsafe to get crews out there,” said BPA spokesman Doug Johnson. “The smoke has been tripping the line on and off.”

The California Independent System Operator warned that it expects electricity demand in the state to surge Monday — and may need to ask Californians to conserve energy. The nonprofit grid management operator has also called for power plants to delay any planned maintenance.

Garry Jennings, the deputy incident commander for the Bootleg Fire, said intermittent shutoffs of the transmission lines are highly likely over the next few days as the fire continues to burn.

While the transmission towers and the lines themselves are relatively well protected against fire, smoke particles cause the lines to arc, which prompted the shutdown. Jennings said the impacts are being felt across the West, cutting off power to run irrigation pumps for Oregon farmers and stressing the power grid in California, where a heat wave is creating more demand for air conditioning.

“With that being de-energized, it is actually affecting agriculture from Fields, Oregon, to Winnemucca Nevada,” he said.

The fire was first spotted on Tuesday, and had grown to around 39,000 acres on Friday. It had nearly quadrupled in size by Sunday and remained 0% contained. The fire’s rapid expansion created dangers for firefighters and residents. Due to public safety concerns and immediate threat to life, the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office took the rare step of citing or arresting those who remained in or were trying to re-enter the Level 3 “get out” evacuation areas in the Bootleg Fire area. Conditions on the fire lines were so extreme that firefighters were pulled back and moved to predetermined safety zones, said Al Lawson, a wildland and structure protection incident commander.

“The fire behavior we are seeing on the Bootleg Fire is among the most extreme you can find and firefighters are seeing conditions they have never seen before,” he said in a prepared statement. “We understand the frustration of the community as the fire continues to grow. We also need to ensure our firefighters are able to engage safely so that they can return home at the end of this assignment to their families.”

The fire grew to the north and east, burning through Sycan Estates, a community near Beatty, Oregon. Some structures burned. There were no reported fatalities, according to the Forest Service.

Two level-1 firefighting crews are on their way to Southern Oregon, but weather and fuel conditions have made the fire perilously difficult to fight. Crews were scouting locations for new containment lines. The Forest Service said it was adding more night crews to the fire lines in order to take advantage of cooler nighttime weather conditions.

Jennings said the Bootleg Fire is behaving in ways that make it resistant to control measures like dropping retardant and water, due to the extreme dryness of the forest and the topography of the area.

“In my career, I’ve only seen a few seasons similar to what I’m seeing here,” said Jennings, a 47-year veteran firefighter. He said normally it takes wind to move a fire across a forested landscape. The Bootleg Fire is moving quickly without being wind-driven.

“Normally, it’s grass that spreads a fire easily from one place to another. In this case, the large fuels, the trees, are dry enough that it’s adding to the spread of the fire,” he said.

Portland Fire and Rescue and the Gresham and Corbett fire departments dispatched crews Saturday to help battle the fire. The three agencies are part of the Multnomah County Task Force, which responded to a request for support from the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office. The task force is comprised of an engine and water tender from Corbett, two brush units from Portland and a brush unit and taskforce leader from Gresham.

The National Weather Service said dangerously unstable condition were promoting extreme growth of the fire Sunday. Authorities advised that people heed evacuation orders. Red Cross Cascades said in a tweet Sunday that 38 people had stayed overnight at an emergency shelter for evacuees set up at the Klamath County Fairgrounds.

East of Roseburg, the 11,000-acre Jack Fire was considered 10% contained as of Sunday morning. Level 3 “go now” evacuation orders remained in place for all Forest Service campgrounds in the area, and for the Dry Creek community, as well as all residences on Illahee Road. Level 2 “get set” evacuation orders were issued on that road further from the fire, including Steamboat Inn and nearby residences.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting