Oregon’s 2021 wildfire season is devastating the state, following a trend of severe wildfires over the last decade. Extreme drought and build-up of dry underbrush creates longer and larger fire seasons, exhausting the efforts of firefighters and leaving Oregonians tense.
By mid-August this year, Oregon wildfires burned over a million more acres than they had by that time last year, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. However, Sept. 2020 burned 400,000 more acres than Sept. 2021 — partially due to a severe windstorm event that fueled several wildfires over Labor Day last year.
The Bootleg Fire ignited in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near Beatty, Oregon. It became the largest current wildfire in the United States on July 22 when it grew to nearly 400,000 acres. The now-fully-contained Bootleg Fire is the third largest wildfire in Oregon since the beginning of the 20th century, according to public information officer Mike McMillan.
The fire was so large, it created its own weather system, complete with a lightning cloud and what appeared to be a fire tornado, according to public information officers for the Bootleg Fire.
Lane County’s own Middle Fork Complex Fires began on July 29 and has burned over 30,000 acres. Only 55% contained, public information officials expect to contain the fire by mid-October.
Oregon counties — including Lane — began declaring their fire seasons unusually early this year, due to dry conditions and predictions of another severe wildfire season.
Experts like John Bailey, a professor of forestry at Oregon State University, said these kinds of severe fire seasons will continue and likely worsen if Oregon does not change its approach to combating wildfires.
A new normal for wildland firefighters
Wildland firefighters must work 14 days before receiving two or three days off, Middle Fork Complex spokesperson Lauren Durocher said. They may work up to 16 hours a day.
An arduous season has meant increased calls for wildland firefighters like Nicholas Tustison.
Tustison said he has almost had as many days on fires than some people received during the entirety of 2020. “This season is a lot larger, and a lot more intense than last season was,” Tustison said. “ I do think that extreme fire behavior is going to become more of a norm from now on.”
Tustison said the high summer temperatures posed additional challenges to wildland firefighters. “There have been multiple occasions on this season where we've had people have to stop working to go and vomit due to heat exhaustion,” he said. “You know, people drinking in excess of two gallons a day — just not even able to absorb any of the water that they're taking in.”
Frequent, large fires require a surplus of resources, McMillan said, including staff and equipment. However, such demand spreads resources thin.
“The challenges we are facing with a fire this size is that we’ve got a lot of areas that need attention,” McMillan said. “Even if we had the equipment to do it, we need the supervisors to help keep the firefighters safe. We’re adjusting and doing the best we can with what we have.”
Fire crews from across the country came to southern Oregon to help fight the Bootleg Fire, McMillan said. It took almost 2,000 personnel nearly 40 days to contain the Bootleg Fire, according to incident documents.
Todd Light, a division supervisor at the Middle Fork Complex, said fatigue is a factor when it comes to lack of resources.
“The biggest factor I see is just the lack of resources,” Light said. “There’s so many fires at one time that we order a lot of equipment and a lot of crews and a lot of engines, and we just can't get it because there are so many fires going on.”
Extremely large fires like the Bootleg Fire can put wildland firefighters in high-stress situations where they work right next to large and spreading flames.
“A fire moving so fast, there’s no way you could outrun it. You want to make sure you’re not in front of those moving fronts,” Bootleg Safety Officer Larry Welsh said. “It will consume anything in its path.”
Jordan Gulley, a wildland firefighter working on the Bootleg, said fire seasons have gradually worsened since he started fighting fires in 2007.
“I would say it’s a new normal,” Gulley said. “A term that we started using in our line of work is fire year instead of a fire season. And I would suspect, without proper fuels management and embracing the future of fire in our weather and our conditions on Earth, we are going to have worse fire seasons.”
Neighboring flames and heartbreaking loss
Evacuation orders fluctuated across Oregon this summer as wildfires sprouted and their containment levels wavered.
Sue Cathart is a bike mechanic at Oakridge Bike Shop, located roughly 9 miles away from the flames of the Middle Fork Complex. She said the heavy smoke and neighboring flames slowed down business.
“Our business is all about getting people outside,” she said. “And outside isn’t the place to be right now.”
However, Cathart said she is mainly worried about her community. “You have a small community, and a bike shop tends to be a place where people check in,” she said. “I’d say that nerves are pretty high.”
The Willamette National Forest surrounds the area, leaving the community nervously watching as wildfires consistently encompass the area, Cathart said.
“Last year, we had fires to the north of us, fires to the south of us. And at one point, we had a fire to the east of us, and felt pretty lucky that it wasn't here,” Cathart said. “But there was a general sentiment of like, gosh, when's it going to be our turn? And they're closer now.”
The Bootleg Fire burned roughly a quarter of the Klamath Tribes’ treaty land in southern Oregon, Don Gentry, tribal council chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said.
Gentry said the loss has had an emotional impact on him. “I have a lot of memories hunting out there — memories of elders, people I’ve hunted with that have passed,” Gentry said. “It’s kind of sad, definitely. And, to see so much of that area just black and destroyed, it's just heartbreaking.”
Although Gentry said the Tribes are worried about the effects of the Bootleg Fire on all species, he said they are particularly concerned about the endangered C’waam and Koptu fish populations, which are culturally important to the tribes and only found in Upper Klamath Lake. Water contamination from the Bootleg Fire could kill the fish, he said.
Gentry said he is concerned about future wildfires affecting the Tribes’ territory as well, because centuries of fire suppression has built up dry underbrush known as fuels.
“This fire burnt about 25% of our treaty rights area,” he said. “That means there’s 75% of it that hasn’t burned and is still at risk.”
Learning from the past
Bailey, the forestry professor at OSU, said climate change drives the trend of severe wildfire seasons.
Oregon’s extreme and severe drought levels, which global warming has produced, left dead material on trees and sucked the moisture from fuels that blanket forest grounds, Bailey said.
Oregon has been putting out fires for centuries. However, wildfires have historically burned unhindered, which allowed such dry fuels to disintegrate and clear forests of highly-flammable material, Bailey said.
Fire managers occasionally perform prescribed burns — the intentional application of fire to eliminate fuels — to solve this problem. McMillan said the state had previously treated areas of the Bootleg Fire with prescribed burns. In those places, fire slowed and was more manageable, he said. Areas that had not received treatment were difficult to suppress.
However, Bailey said fire suppression is still a major directive for Oregon. Although climate change is the driving force behind worsening fire seasons, Bailey said fuel management — such as treating the landscape — is what people can control right now.
“Until we change our management practices, fuels are going to continue accumulating,” Bailey said. Traditional ecological knowledge of how the landscapes were managed can help guide such restorative work, Bailey said.
Ten years before the Bootleg burned their territory, the Klamath Tribes signed a Master Stewardship Agreement that partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy to perform treatments on their territory and the surrounding landscape.
The treatments are designed to naturally work effectively with fire, Steve Rondeau, natural resource director for the Klamath Tribes, said. Treatments included prescribed burns and forest thinning in order to return the forest to a historical condition.
“It's important that we take lessons from the past and apply them to the present, so that we can get better outcomes into the future,” Rondeau said.
When Rondeau visited the aftermath of the Bootleg Fire, he said he saw the results of the tribes’ work: a stark difference between untreated and treated land drawn by a line between retained vegetation and scorched ground.
Although the Klamath Tribes do not have the capacity to perform such aboriginal treatments on their own, Rondeau said these management practices have to be applied across a greater landscape in order to prevent future severe wildfire seasons and protect Oregon’s national parks.
“If we don’t get to a place where we can intervene, we’re not going to prevent what just happened here, there. We will lose our parks, and we will lose our wilderness if we don’t get very serious about how to apply fire back on that landscape,” Rondeau said, “We’re not going to be able to continue to suppress these things.”
Editor's note: This story was updated Sept.30 to reflect the correct spelling of Nicholas Tustison's last name.