Even as North America and Canada continue to suffer back-to-back heatwaves and large wildfires, it’s impossible to ignore the fragility of our climate systems. 84 large wildfires have broken out across 13 US states, with more wildfires currently aflame in British Columbia, Canada.
One of the numerous wildfires in the region, the Bootleg Wildfire, has grown so large and intense that it is now creating its own weather.
What is the Bootleg Fire?
The Bootleg Fire is a wildfire that is currently on in the North-western US state of Oregon. The fire is the largest of the eight other large wildfires in the state. The fire has already consumed 1,569 km² (606 mi²), an area larger than Delhi (1,484 km² or 573 mi²).
Forest officials have noted that the fire was started by lightning strikes. The lightning strike ignited plant life which had dried up and died as a result of the heat dome that is above the area. The fire was only detected and reported on July 6, but it was smouldering hidden from view before that.
While the Bootleg fire has continued to spread, consuming 67 homes and 100 other buildings, no serious injuries or deaths have been reported yet.
The fire changed the weather
Oregon fire officials noted that the Bootleg Fire can be observed with an "aggressive surface spread with pyrocumulus development".
Pyrocumulus is type of clouds that form as a result of extreme heat over a large area, almost exclusively formed from wildfires. These clouds are formed when the air over wildfires rises rapidly, with the moisture contained in the smoke that is carried up by the air condensing into large dark clouds. Due to the nature and formation of these clouds, they are often responsible for lightning and strong winds, the latter of which often exacerbates existing wildfires and the former spark new ones.
“The fire is so large and generating so much energy and extreme heat that it's changing the weather. Normally, the weather predicts what the fire will do. In this case, the fire is predicting what the weather will do,” said Oregon Forestry Department spokesman Marcus Kauffman.
The clouds over the fire continue and strong winds and lightning allow the fire to spread further. The vicious self-sustaining cycle not only makes it more difficult to contain the fire but also creates hazardous conditions for the firemen in the area.
What is being done to contain the fire?
Nearly 2,200 fire personnel have been deployed in the area to combat the Bootleg Fire. Firefighting equipment like water-dropping helicopters and aeroplane tankers are also being used. Currently, officials have managed to put up a containment line, areas where the fire should not be able to spread further, across 30 percent of the wildfire’s perimeter.
But with stronger winds forming as a result of the pyrocumulus formation, and lightning strikes that can happen and spark more fires, the containment lines would need to be increased.
"We are running firefighting operations through the day and all through the night. This fire is a real challenge, and we are looking at the sustained battle for the foreseeable future," Joe Hessel, the Bootleg Fire Incident Commander said on July 19.
More than 2,000 homes have already been evacuated already, while another 5,000 are listed as threatened, ready to be evacuated at a moment’s notice. While the fire is large, it is in the mostly rural state of Oregon, which itself is larger than Britain, which is why the damage to buildings and life has been minimal so far.
Even as officials are battling the fire, the Bootleg Fire will have access to the dried undergrowth for easy fuel. Over 90 percent of the state is in severe or higher drought conditions, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said, “The future for us for the remainder of the season continues to look above normal dry and above normal temperatures, So this is not going to return to normal anytime soon, so we're facing a long, difficult fire season.”
The role of climate change in the intensity and size of the Bootleg fire, and the increase of wildfire incidences in general, can’t be denied. The drought conditions that are enabling the fire to spread so easily were caused by the heat dome, which itself is a weather event caused by the rapid rise in global temperatures.
"There's absolutely no question that climate change is playing out before our eyes. We saw the heat dome event a few weeks ago. We, unfortunately, lost a lot of Oregonians through that event. In February, we saw devastating ice storms. Over half a million people lost power last fall, as you are well aware. We had unprecedented wildfires," Gov. Kate Brown said at a news conference.