Photo From The Bootleg Fire: America’s Largest Wildfire
PAISLEY, Oregon – At the east end of the Bootleg fire on Friday afternoon, there was a surreal sign of life that once existed in a patch of Oregon forest now turned to ash, smoke and trees burnt without leaves: the murmurs of cattle.
Cows roamed the blackened landscape of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. None of the firefighters seemed to be paying attention to them. The western front of the fire was largely contained. But the fire escalated in the east.
“We have this line of fire,” said Nikolas Coronado, who was part of a team of eight New Mexico firefighters attacking the flames and embers with axes and chainsaws.
Mr. Coronado and his colleagues eliminated small fires and kept embers from being blown away and starting new fires. It was unglamorous, techless, anonymous and sweaty work. His face was covered with soot. His gloves were blackened.
“I feel great,” said Mr. Coronado. “Pretty cool again. “
On the front lines of the nation’s largest active wildfire, hundreds of firefighters from many states struggled to repel a blaze that burned more than 400,000 acres. On Friday, the Bootleg Fire remained only 40 percent content.
Firefighters took reporters and photographers on a tour of the eastern area of the blaze along the so-called containment line, a barrier created by firefighters to stop the progress of the flame. Small fires were burning inside hollowed out trees. Smoke rose from the blackened earth as if the earth itself was roasting.
Six hours spent on the edge of the Bootleg fire on Friday – in addition to visiting small towns and fire camps earlier in the week – shed light on the scale of the blaze and its response. Miles and miles of trails were traced through the forest by hand and machine to stop the blaze, creating an impromptu transportation network.
For all the power and resources of the more than 2,300 firefighters battling the blaze, what resonated was the simple and timeless nature of the job. Firefighter after firefighter, in the middle of 4pm shifts, their yellow jackets dot the desolate terrain, wielding little more than an ax.
The eight-person New Mexico fire team prepared to climb the slope to check a section of the forest for small fires. It’s a dirty job: they ran their hands over the ground to check the heat, using a hand tool to smash the embers into the earth. Others scoured the forest with a chainsaw in search of burning trees. They cut off the hot parts so the crew could put out the fire.
“This is my third year of fighting fires in Oregon,” said New Mexico team member Orlando Eustace. “This year is more extreme, with the drought and everything.”
The drought and hot temperatures this summer helped fuel the Bootleg Fire. Firefighters estimate that 95 out of 100 embers carried by the wind ignite when they hit the ground.
Fire commanders said they were fighting two battles – the blaze and the coronavirus pandemic. Nine firefighters have already tested positive for the virus. During briefings in camps where firefighters sleep and eat, officials remind everyone gathered to stand aside and socially distance themselves.
Pieces of charcoal from the Bootleg Fire were visible on the bed of a drought-cracked lake.
There were public and private firefighters on the line Friday.
Raven Parking works for Oregon Woods, an Eugene-based forestry, wildfire and construction company. He extinguished smoldering embers with a hand tool and with a hose from a mobile tanker.
On the line of fire, some structures wear the same protective equipment as the firefighters.
Abandoned cabins covered in reflective fire retardant material look like spaceships parked in the forest. In a shrouded cabin, a nearby picnic table was deemed unworthy of wrapping and was exposed to the elements.
“It’s basically foil that we wrap these homes in,” said Ryan Berlin, who works for the Federal Bureau of Land Management and serves as the spokesperson for the Bootleg Fire response. “It helps protect from embers and the flame front. This will divert the heat to give them a chance for survival.
The firefighters who do the packing do not charge homeowners for the service. “No,” added Mr. Berlin. “They are taxpayers.
Firefighters extinguish flames in trees by chain cutting burning pieces, depriving the fire of its fuel supply. They are thus seekers, wandering in the forest and looking for a single burning tree.
Private firefighters prepared their equipment at a camp outside the unincorporated town of Bly. The camp is called the forward operating base. The population of Bly is 486; the base is around 1700.
Smoke from the Bootleg Fire moved over the town of Summer Lake.
Elizabeth Quinn and her husband, Ed Schmidt, refused to evacuate their home while in an evacuation area. They followed the weather and the progress of the blaze and said they would leave if the flames got any closer. “It’s like we are studying the disturbance of the ecology in real time,” Ms. Quinn said.
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