Despite containing the Bootleg Fire, Oregon firefighters face a challenging end to wildfire season

COURTESY PHOTO: ODF - Firefighters battle flames at the Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon.With months to go in Oregon's wildfire season, 12 blazes across the state of Oregon as of Aug. 19 engulf 227,476 acres of land, per data aggregated by the National Interagency Fire Center.

According to Clackamas Fire engineer and firefighter Steve McAdoo, current wildfires are causing a severe strain on the state's mitigation resources to the point that two more large fires would cause a "very scary scenario" for Oregon firefighters and residents.

"Resources are so thin right now, and we have so many big fires going right now that, say, two more popped off, like really large fires — and that could happen — we'd have people from all over the country having to come here and fight fires," McAdoo said.

McAdoo added that the upcoming final stretch of fire season will be the most challenging.

"We've been dry for three or four months straight, and then we're coming into fall so trees have, you know, they're done growing for the season, they're starting to dry out, and you're starting to see some trees start to lose their leaves, and that coincides with the hottest part of the end of summer," McAdoo said. "September is a very scary time for wildland season. We're not even there yet. And we've had, however, many fires in Oregon."

Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Chief Doug Grafe said during an Aug. 12 press conference that 5,000 firefighters from across the nation were here fighting Oregon fires by that point, and that the Oregon/Washington region is already approaching its yearly wildfire averages with four full months still left in 2021.

"A difficult fire season to date and ahead of us," Grafe said.

A major milestone was reached on Sunday, Aug. 15, when the U.S. Forest Service announced that Oregon firefighters had successfully helped contain three large wildfires including the Bootleg Fire, which was at one point the largest wildfire burning in the nation, requiring an estimated 2,000 firefighters to stop the flames which burned across roughly 413,000 acres of land in Klamath and Lake counties for 39 days.

Several Clackamas County firefighters from districts including Clackamas Fire District #1 and Estacada Rural Fire District were sent to southern Oregon to help put out the Bootleg Fire, which required a different extinguishing method than a "structural fire" in a building.

"It's pretty rare to actually be putting water on a forest fire," McAdoo said. "The main strategy is building a line that you don't want that fire to pass."

McAdoo, who recently returned from helping fight the Middle Fork Complex Fires, which are currently burning over 12,700 acres in Willammette Valley, added that wildland firefighters often work in tandem with structural firefighters.

"There were about four fires in the Middle Fork complex. The one that was a priority was the fire outside of Oak Ridge; it was threatening a city," McAdoo said. "So we work together with the wildland-fire partners, and we keep that fire from coming into town. And that got taken care of this weekend."

"Now that doesn't mean there aren't other fires in this complex that are that are kind of burning up," McAdoo added, "but right now they're not threatening a structure, so to speak. So we'll just wait to see what the rest of the fire season brings."

In July, Oregon's Director of Wildfire Recovery Matthew Garrett updated county commissioners on several areas in wildfire response and recovery that they are looking to improve in, based on takeaways from the unprecedented 2020 fire season. Indicated areas included general planning, fire management and suppression, economic revitalization and public dissemination of information in a manner accessible across all languages.

Chair Tootie Smith said county, state and federal government "failed horribly" in last year's wildfire preparedness and prevention efforts, and "must do better" in 2021.

Also in July, commissioners drafted a letter to the U.S. Department of Treasury asking them to consider expanding eligible uses for ARPA dollars to include disaster preparedness. If approved, the county will be able to use the dollars to fund projects related to wildfires and other natural disasters that have significantly impacted local communities over the past year.

Oregon and California U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla on Aug. 18 unveiled five bills aimed at increasing funding for battling wildfires, protecting workers, and helping combat the effects of extreme heat and wildfire smoke.

McAdoo said despite difficult circumstances requiring them to fight several major wildfires already, Clackamas firefighters refuse to quit.

"They're working these long shifts every day for up to two weeks at a time," McAdoo said. "They're getting weary, they're getting tired, but they also still love their jobs, they want to help their communities, and that's what we do as firefighters."

"The firefighters that I know that are out there, even though they may be a little tired and weary, they're still very excited to do what they can to get these fires out and save their state," McAdoo added. "We all live here in Oregon because it's so green and so beautiful, and they hate to see that stuff burn down too, so they do what they can to help keep that from happening."

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