POLK COUNTY — When a wildfire grows into a major conflagration, local firefighters are often recruited to help with containment operations.
Polk County Task Force No. 17, headed by Capt. Kevin Pettner of the Dallas Fire Department, arrived on scene July 7 just one day after it was first reported.
He said the designation indicated they were already the 17th task force to be recruited to fight the growing wildfire.
It continues to actively burn on the Fremont-Winema National Forest, about 28 miles to the northeast of Klamath Falls. The wildfire has since grown to 344,755 acres, or about 475 square miles, as of Monday and is about 25% contained. The cause of the fire remains unknown at this time.
Fire officials are already calling the Bootleg Fire one of the biggest in the state’s recent history and is one of more than 80 major conflagrations across 11 western states.
This is the third time in three years Pettner has deployed to help fight wildfires across the state — three years ago to the Holiday Farm Fire outside Springfield and last year to the Taylor Creek/Merlin fire down by Grants Pass.
“The Bootleg Fire is probably almost double the size the Polk County Task Force was on last year,” Pettner said. “The Holiday fire was about 180,000 acres. These mega category fires keep getting bigger. It’s just one of things we have to be aware of, making us change tactics and how we go about our business.”
Pettner said the Polk No. 17 task force was comprised of 13 total firefighters, some paid, mostly volunteers, with two or three on their first mission to combat a conflagration. They took with them several vehicles — Polk No. 1 contributed a Type 3 Engine, another Type 3 engine came from SW Polk Rural Fire District, Type 6 Engines (a pickup style) were brought from Falls City and Dallas and a water tender made its way from Yamhill Fire district.
Many news outlets blame climate change causing the growing number of larger and earlier fire seasons. Pettner, meanwhile, pointed to specific conditions that contributed to the Bootleg Fire.
“There’s mostly a material, a dust layer, that falls off trees, that has grown so thick on the ground and building up over the years,” he explained. “Also, a big issue they’re experiencing is a bug infestation that has killed a lot of the pine trees that maximizes fire growth.”
He added one of the challenges of supporting the fight against a mega fire is the feeling of always playing catchup.
“The Bootleg Fire got a fast start even before we got out there,” he said.
One of the differences this year is the California Office of Emergency Services has sent multiple task forces to help in addition to task forces from Washington and Utah also contributing.
During their 14-day deployment, Pettner said the task force does more than just directly fight flames. The water tender’s primary job is to go out in search of replenishing its water supply from local creeks and ponds.
Polk County’s task force also participated in night shift back burns, burning off sections of land to try to contain areas or push the fire in a direction they wanted it to go, Pettner explained.
In addition to their engines patrolling areas hitting hot spots or jumping on fire lines, they help local homeowners prepare their homes against the encroaching fire. That included clearing gutters and porches of materials that could feed the flames.
“There’s a lot to do besides just fighting fire. We help prepare homes as best we can, to get them to stand alone, if you will, able for us to be comfortable to come back and clean up a hot spot and hopefully see the home still standing,” he said.
Despite their best efforts, officials said the fire has forced more than 2,000 residents to evacuate their mostly rural homes. So far, an estimated 160 homes and buildings have been destroyed.
Pettner said temperatures in the area had averaged from the mid- to upper-90s with relative humidity close to 10%. Which meant no discernable precipitation was expected then or this week, with only passing thunderstorms forecast.
“I talked to a rancher whose house we protected,” Pettner said. “He said the last time he saw any precipitation was March.”