As the West continues to bake under torrid temperatures, an out-of-control wildfire burning across southwest Oregon has scorched more than 150,000 acres, threatening the power grid that connects Oregon and California and driving people from their homes.
The Bootleg fire continued to burn for its sixth day in a row on Monday. The intense blaze escalated on Saturday afternoon, leading firefighters to leave the scene and retreat back to safety because of an “immediate, life-threatening risk,” according to one update from fire officials.
Charles Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Medford, Ore., said the fire was especially worrying because Oregon’s fire season had only just begun.
“There’s concern because of how early this is starting, and how far it has grown within a relatively short amount of time,” he said.
Climate change is playing a role in the hot, dry conditions that are driving wildfires across the West. The record-shattering temperatures in the Pacific Northwest in early July would have been all but impossible without climate change, according to a team of climate researchers. Because climate change has raised baseline temperatures nearly two degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1900, heat waves are likely to be hotter and deadlier than those in past centuries, scientists said.
The Bootleg fire’s intensity at this early stage in Oregon’s fire season has officials calling it “unprecedented.”
“The fire is changing so dramatically — in the past couple days, it’s doubled in size,” said Mark Enty, a spokesman for the Northwest Incident Management Team 10, which is working to contain the fire. “It’s going to take a long time before it’s safe for people to return.”
There have been no human fatalities or injuries from the blaze, Mr. Enty said.
As the Bootleg fire continued to grow over the weekend, it burned across a voltage power line corridor, threatening a major power grid, Path 66, that connects Oregon and California.
The presence of wildfires, including the Bootleg fire, has put pressure on California’s electrical system, leading to an emergency that is just a step away from rolling blackouts.
Gov. Gavin Newson of California signed executive orders on Friday and Saturday allowing the use of backup generators and auxiliary ship engines for power to ease the state’s dependency on the electric grid.
“We’ve had extremely dry conditions in the southern part of Oregon since the spring,” said Brian MacMillan, a meteorologist and reporter for KPTV, a Fox affiliate in Portland. “It’s one of the driest, if not the driest, spring in record.”
The megafire in Oregon was just one hot zone across the western United States as a “dangerous heat wave” over the weekend was expected to continue into Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. It is the third heat wave to hit the region so far this summer.
The scorching heat included a 130-degree reading in Death Valley in California on Friday, matching a similar recorded temperature in August 2020. The temperature in the area reached just over 120 degrees on Sunday.
Dangerously hot conditions, with temperatures ranging from 100 to 118 degrees, are expected in the western Mojave Desert and Owens Valley, in California, and throughout parts of western and south-central Nevada, including Las Vegas, in Clark County, until Tuesday.
Before the heat wave struck, cooling centers popped up across California. Portable air-conditioning kits reportedly sold out in stores in Salem, Ore., in June. Both restaurants and outdoor Covid-19 vaccine clinics closed in Portland.
The Bootleg fire began in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near the Sprague River on Tuesday, just before 2 p.m., according to an incident report. While the megafire began in a relatively remote area, it soon traveled closer to homes, leading in Klamath County to a Level 3 evacuation, meaning that residents should leave immediately because danger is imminent.
The Sheriff’s Office there said it also “took the rare step of citing or arresting those who remained in or were trying to re-enter the Level 3 evacuation areas in the Bootleg fire area.”
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- The Bootleg Fire in Oregon scorches 150,000 acres as a heat wave continues in the West: “I’ve lived in Oregon all of my life and have never experienced prolonged outages due to extreme weather. We lost our electricity this past winter and most recently on the 116-degree day.” Megan, Portland.
Heat Wave Hits North America
As suffocating heat hits much of Western North America, experts are concerned about human safety and power failures.
- Western Canada: Canada broke a national heat record on June 27, when the temperature in a small town in British Columbia reached almost 116 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking an 84-year-old record by nearly 3 degrees, with dangerously hot weather expected to continue for several more days.
- Pacific Northwest U.S.: A heat dome has enveloped the region driving temperatures to extreme levels — with temperatures well above 100 degrees — and creating dangerous conditions in a part of the country unaccustomed to oppressive summer weather or air-conditioning.
- Severe Drought: Much of the Western half of the United States is in the grip of a severe drought of historic proportions. Conditions are especially bad in California and the Southwest, but the drought extends into the Pacific Northwest, much of the Intermountain West, and even the Northern Plains. The extreme heat is exacerbating the dry conditions.
- Growing Energy Shortages: Power failures have increased by more than 60 percent since 2015, even as climate change has made heat waves worse, according to new research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
- Baseline Temperatures Are Rising: New baseline data for temperature, rain, snow and other weather events reveal how the climate has changed in the United States. One key takeaway, the country is getting hotter.
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