Disturbing 'fire clouds' emerge as huge blaze destroys 70 homes

The smoke and heat generated by the largest wildfire in the US is producing lightning within massive “fire clouds” as the Oregon blaze creates its own weather.

The “fire clouds” are “dangerous columns of smoke and ash that can reach up to 10 kilometres in the sky and are visible from more than 160km away.

The volatile nature of these disturbing “fire clouds” are making it extremely hazardous for firefighters as the monstrous Bootleg Fire spreads rapidly, growing to a third of the size of Rhode Island.

A drone captures a massive
A drone captures a massive "fire cloud" above the Bootleg blaze in southern Oregon. Source: Bootleg Fire Incident Command

Strong winds pushing dangerous Bootleg Fire into remote area

Despite the jaw-dropping size of the fire, evacuations and property losses have so far been minimal compared with much smaller blazes in densely populated areas of California.

At least 2,000 homes have been evacuated at some point during the fire and another 5,000 threatened. At least 70 homes and more than 100 outbuildings have gone up in flames. Thick smoke chokes the area where residents and wildlife alike have already been dealing with months of drought and extreme heat. No one has died.

Strong winds from the southwest are rapidly pushing the fire to the north and east into an area that’s increasingly remote.

“The Bootleg Fire is threatening ranch houses that are in pretty far-flung areas,” said James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry who studies historical wildfires. “There are no suburbs in that area.”

Bootleg Fire the fourth largest blaze in Oregon's history

But as big as the Bootleg Fire is, it’s not the biggest Oregon has seen. The fire’s current size puts it fourth on the list of the state’s largest blazes in modern times, including rangeland fires, and second on the list of infernos specifically burning in forest.

These mega-fires usually burn until the late fall or even early winter, when rain finally puts them out.

The largest Oregon forest fire in modern history was the Biscuit Fire, which torched nearly 2,000 square kilometres in 2002 in the Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest in southern Oregon and northern California. The largest fire of any type was the Long Draw Fire in 2012, which incinerated 2,260 square kilometres of mostly sagebrush and rangeland in the endless expanses of southeastern Oregon, where almost no one lives.

A photo of the Bootleg Fire taken by US firefighters as they face challenging conditions and continue to work around the clock to contain the huge blaze. Source: Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal
US firefighters face challenging conditions and continue to work around the clock to contain the huge Bootleg Fire. Source: Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal

By the time the Bootleg Fire is extinguished months from now, it will likely be as big or bigger than those fires, but research shows that Oregon once experienced mega-fires much larger than these fairly often, Johnston said.

“I think it’s important for us to take the long view of wildfire. In the context of the last couple of hundred years, the Bootleg Fire is not large,” he said. “One of the things my lab group does is reconstruct historical fires, and fires that were burning in that area in the 1600s and 1700s were just as big as the Bootleg Fire or bigger.”

That’s little reassurance for fire crews battling the current blaze, which is 25 per cent contained.

US Fire Authorities battle dangerous conditions across the nation's northwest. Source: AP
US Fire Authorities battle dangerous conditions across the nation's northwest. Source: AP

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