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National Interagency Fire Center reports more than 65 major fires in Western U.S. states that have burned close to a million acres so far. Thousands have fled their homes. The largest fire in the country is in Southern Oregon, and has already burned more than 150,000 acres — twice the size of Portland. William Brangham discusses the fires with Rich Tyler of the Oregon State Fire Marshal's office.
The extreme heat and ongoing drought in the West are combining to make for a very difficult fire season.
Wildfires are burning earlier than usual in some places. It's also led to evacuations, as firefighters try to contain huge blazes in sweltering heat, with temperatures hitting the triple digits in some cases.
William Brangham, who's just back from reporting out West, has our update.
Judy, the federal agency that tracks wildfires reports that more than 65 major fires in Western states that have burned close to a million acres so far, more than half are located in Arizona, Idaho and Montana.
In Northern California, large blazes are burning in the Sierra Nevada hills and forests and right near the Nevada border. Thousands of homes have been evacuated.
The largest fire in the country right now is in Southern Oregon. It's known as the Bootleg Fire. It's already burned more than 150,000 acres. That's an area twice the size of Portland. There are two other smaller, but still significant fires in the state as well.
We look at the state of the situation there with Rich Tyler. He's with the Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office.
Rich Tyler, very good to have you on the "NewsHour, " especially amidst what you're dealing with right now.
Can you just give us a sense of — the Bootleg Fire, we know, has been doubling in size every couple of days. this sounds like an awful thing you all are having to deal with. What is it like right now? What are conditions like?
Currently, at the Bootleg Fire, they are reporting 201, 923 acres that are burned and zero percent containment.
And what does that mean for firefighters who are trying to get their hands around this?
It means that we are looking at all possible tactics and strategies to not only give a little bit of direction to the fire, but primarily protect lives and homes and infrastructure.
There is a major power line that runs through the middle of that fire that is headed south to California.
And do you have a sense of the kinds of structures and homes and communities that might be in the line?
Let's see. We have approximately 1, 926 homes that are threatened, with 21 that have already been destroyed. And we have 54 other structures, outbuildings, that have already been destroyed. And those are the ones we know of. We will continue to assess and look at, but that is a slower process, because our priority is saving lives, protecting homes and values.
And what about for the firefighters themselves?
I mean, I can't imagine dealing with something, one, of that size, but also in those conditions. I know it has been incredibly hot out there.
And the fire — typically, fires have a fire front. It goes in a direction, which allows us to anchor from the start of the fire area, work along the flanks, and work our way to the front of the fire.
The unique characteristics that the Bootleg Fire has, if you look at it on the infrared maps, there is no one fire front. In fact, there — at times, there is three or a horseshoe-shaped fire front, which means your flanks are very limited.
It is still relatively early in the summer. For you guys to be fighting something as big and ferocious as this in July, I mean, what is that? Is that this ongoing drought, the heat? What is that?
I think it's all of it.
I was talking to our administrator. And we haven't deployed a task forces under the State Fire Marshal's Office under a Conflagration Act prior to July 15 ever.
So, now we are at July 13, and we have had five conflagrations already in the state of Oregon.
Is there any sense from the forecasts of, do you have any potential relief insight from Mother Nature helping you out?
Right now, all the weather systems — or the weather experts are telling us we're going to get more of the same.
Stability for us wildland and structural firefighters when it comes to weather is good news. It's when the weather changes, the wind direction changes, the temperatures spike, the relative humidity drop, and it changes drastically in a small window, that it becomes more dangerous.
We know that human-caused ignition is a major driver of these kinds of fires. Is it your sense that people have gotten a better sense of controlling their own behavior with sparks and cigarettes and campfires and things like that, and done a better job of defending their homes and properties in case fire comes? Has that improved?
In 2020, 70 percent of Oregon's wildfires were human-caused, 70 percent. That means we have an opportunity to really push the education while people are aware of, while our citizens are aware of the devastation that wildfires can have.
People want to get out of their homes. They want to get out of their isolation. They're headed back out in the wilderness. And they're headed out to the parks, and they're headed out to where the forests are.
But when you take people that may never have been in the forest or haven't been in the forest a long time, they are — they're having to relearn or learn for the first time, how do you be smart? How do you be responsible for your actions to reduce the chance of ignition of wildfires?
All right, Rich Tyler with the Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office, thank you very much for being here.
And we wish you the best of luck out there.
Thank you so much, William.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
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