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Oregon's Bootleg Fire Is Expected To Burn For Weeks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Take a moment to imagine 300 square miles, roughly the size of New York City. Now imagine 300 square miles covered by forest and on fire. It's happening just north of the Oregon-California border. Jefferson Public Radio's Erik Neumann reports on the largest fire now burning in the U.S.

ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: The Bootleg Fire has been growing quickly over the past week and is threatening thousands of structures. It's burning in a massive rural part of south-central Oregon. Fire officials are calling conditions extreme. Several thousand residents are under some form of evacuation notice, one is Sarah Kose, who left her home in Sprague River on Sunday.

SARAH KOSE: That smoke that was coming off the mountain was so horrible. I can breathe in this a little bit. But there, I could not breathe at all. It was just gross.

NEUMANN: Kose isn't sure whether her home is still standing. Smoke from this fire is blowing east into Idaho, causing air quality problems there. Extremely dry conditions and hot weather are making it hard for firefighters to battle the blaze. Marcus Kauffman is with the Oregon Department of Forestry, one of the groups managing the fire response. He says the combination of drought and high temperatures are creating conditions for rapidly spreading fires.

MARCUS KAUFFMAN: So when the fire just gets up, gets ahead of steam and goes on the run, it's really not much you can do in those kinds of conditions.

NEUMANN: Kauffman says firefighters have had to retreat several times in recent days because of extreme fire behavior.

KAUFFMAN: You just pull your forces out of the way and wait for another opportunity.

NEUMANN: Members of the Oregon National Guard arrived in the small town of Chiloquin this week to help with evacuations. And earlier this week, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, pledged just over half a million dollars to help pay for the costs of the Bootleg Fire. Late last week, this fire caused power companies to shut down transmission lines, putting parts of California at risk of rolling blackouts. Utilities are assessing long-term damage to their equipment. Much of central Oregon is currently under a red flag weather warning, meaning there's a high risk wildfires could erupt. The warming climate is making fires like this more frequent and intense. Fire officials estimate the Bootleg Fire will continue burning for weeks. It's one of dozens of fires burning throughout the West. And it's still early in fire season.

For NPR News, I'm Erik Neumann in southern Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.