The Bootleg Fire in Oregon, which erupted in early July and is still only 25 percent contained, has now charred an area the size of Los Angeles, destroying at least 67 homes and 100 buildings.
Smoke and heat from the out-of-control blaze have created “fire clouds” that can be seen from more than 100 miles away. One of the clouds threw embers onto fire crews working below, leading to an emergency evacuation of personnel off the fire line. Numerous “slop fires” have jumped fire lines, with one growing to about four miles in size as of Monday afternoon.
“We are running firefighting operations through the day and all through the night,” incident commander Joe Hessel told the Associated Press. “This fire is a real challenge, and we are looking at sustained battle for the foreseeable future.”
At the same time, wildfires continue to rage elsewhere in California and along the Canada-Minnesota border. Hotter, drier weather simply means more wildfires, according to Phillip Duffy, executive director of the Woodwell Climate Research Center.
Wildfires are not getting more frequent, but they are in no uncertain terms starting earlier and becoming bigger than ever before, Duffy told The Daily Beast.
“It’s really pretty simple—it’s just hotter, drier weather,” said Duffy, who previously served as a senior science and technology policy adviser in the Obama White House. “That shouldn't be controversial. I mean, we’ve known for centuries, probably millennia, that when it’s hot and dry, there’s more fire danger. And it’s climate change that makes it hotter and drier.”
The trend towards increased wildfire activity in the western U.S. goes back decades, Duffy explained, adding, “This is not a new story.”
“Last year's area burned was more than twice the previous record,” he said. “And this year is looking very bad… When you get a little spark, it quickly grows and gets out of control because the fuel conditions are so dry, whereas in previous decades, a little fire would have been a little fire and easily extinguished. And that's the real difference.”
The Bootleg Fire was reportedly sparked by lightning and is now considered to be the largest wildfire burning in the United States.
But another massive wildfire to the south was almost certainly man-made, according to authorities. California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) reported to regulators late Sunday night that its equipment could have touched off the Dixie Fire, a blaze that has so far ravaged more than 30,000 acres across the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Around 7 a.m. on July 13, PG&E’s monitoring system indicated a power outage near Cresta Dam in the Feather River Canyon area, states the report. A responding utility worker “observed from a distance what he thought was a blown fuse” on an overhead circuit, but “[d]ue to the challenging terrain and road work resulting in a bridge closure, he was not able to reach the pole with the fuse” until late afternoon.
When he finally got there, the PG&E worker “observed...what appeared to him to be a healthy green tree leaning into the Bucks Creek 1101 12 kV conductor, which was still intact and suspended on the poles,” according to the PG&E report. “He also observed a fire on the ground near the base of the tree,” and reported the fire to his supervisor. The supervisor called 911, and the dispatcher said fire crews were on the way.
“CAL FIRE air support arrived on scene by approximately 1730 hours and began dropping fire retardant and water,” said the report.
In its own status update issued at 8:45 p.m., Cal Fire said the blaze had at that point consumed about 1 to 2 acres. Later that evening, Cal Fire reported the fire had grown to 10 to 15 acres and that firefighters were “having trouble accessing the area.” One firefighter suffered minor injuries, but “was able to walk away,” states the report, which adds that Cal Fire investigators collected PG&E equipment in the area for analysis.
In 2019, when PG&E declared bankruptcy, its equipment had already been responsible for starting more than 1,550 fires in the state through 2017. Last year, the utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting a fire for its role in causing the 2018 Camp Fire—the deadliest wildfire in California history. In April, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch charged PG&E with 33 criminal counts over the 2019 Kincade Fire that destroyed more than 77,000 acres, leveled 374 structures, including 174 homes. Authorities in Shasta County are mulling possible criminal charges against PG&E over 2020’s Zogg Fire, which killed four people.
PG&E was recently put under the California Public Utilities Commission’s “enhanced oversight and enforcement” program “based on the company’s failure to sufficiently prioritize clearing vegetation on its highest-risk power lines as part of its wildfire mitigation work in 2020 after determining that PG&E did a poor job last year of clearing tree limbs and other vegetation away from its riskiest power lines.”
The utility “logged the majority of its compliance work on lower-risk power lines—the opposite of expectations set out in PG&E’s Wildfire Mitigation Plan,” the commission said in April. If PG&E’s missteps continue, its operations could be assumed by the state. Earlier this year, PG&E released a wildfire mitigation plan that stretched to more than 1,000 pages. Among other things, the utility plans to spend nearly $5 billion on wildfire safety measures in 2021. Consumer education is one part of the initiative.
However, accidents still happen—all of which are required to be reported to state regulators by PG&E. On July 10, PG&E reported, a transformer in Vacaville, California, blew and caught fire, cutting power to about 1,000 customers. The responding PG&E worker “observed two nearby vehicles caught fire and two additional vehicles sustained transformer oil spatter,” the report stated. “The total combined damages are expected to exceed $50K.”
In late June, a tree in the Sierra National Forest fell into PG&E power lines and started a fire that burned some 400 acres. Some incidents have been more contained. In May, PG&E reported that a property owner submitted a claim to the utility for $81,000 in damages allegedly caused by PG&E equipment.
PG&E did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.