'If you don't leave, you're dead': US Oregon wildfire forces hundreds from homes

By morning, the so-called Bootleg fire had blackened more than 212,000 acres (85,793 hectares) and destroyed 21 homes. PHOTO: REUTERS

KLAMATH FALLS, OREGON (REUTERS) - An immense, swiftly spreading wildfire raged through drought-parched timber and brush in south-central Oregon for a ninth day on Wednesday (July 14), threatening nearly 2,000 homes and displacing hundreds of residents with little sign of slowing, officials said.

By morning, the so-called Bootleg fire had blackened more than 212,000 acres (85,793 hectares) and destroyed 21 homes, with firefighters managing to carve containment lines around just 5 per cent of its perimeter, according to state and federal authorities.

Now ranked as the largest of at least 10 major active wildfires burning this week in the Pacific Northwest, the Bootleg erupted on July 6 and has spread mostly unchecked in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest, about 250 miles (400km) south of Portland.

As of Wednesday, flames were threatening 1,926 dwellings, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Centre in Portland reported. Nearly 400 of those homes have been ordered evacuated, officials from the Oregon Department of Forestry said. The remainder were under evacuation standby alerts.

A pall of thick haze settled over Klamath Falls to the southwest, where the local fairgrounds were turned into a Red Cross evacuation centre.

Tim McCarley, one of the evacuees, told Reuters earlier this week that sheriff's deputies and state troopers showed up at his home just as "sparks and embers were coming down," warning his family: "If you don't leave, you're dead."

"This is my first wildfire and I'm going to tell you, it is scary," said fellow evacuee Sarah Kose. "You don't know if you're going to be the one that loses your house, or you sit there and you watch your neighbour lose their house, and there's nothing you can do about it."

The rural communities of Sprague River, Beatty and Bly were closest to the fire zone, all three located along the highly active southern flank of the blaze. More than 1,300 firefighting personnel were assigned to the incident.

Coming in the midst of record-shattering temperatures across the West, the Bootleg fire has been stoked by hot, dry, windy weather and vegetation desiccated by prolonged drought - a combination that has accelerated the spread of the flames, officials said.

In all, 60 large fires have consumed more than 1 million acres (404,680 hectares) across 12 states this season, according to the National Interagency Fire Centre in Boise, Idaho.

Last year, dozens of late-summer wildfires, many of them sparked by dry-lightning storms, killed more than three dozen people and charred more than 10.2 million acres (4.1 million hectares) in California, Oregon and Washington.

Earlier in the week, flames burning along a high-voltage power corridor connecting Oregon's electricity grid with California's threatened energy supplies, prompting the agency that manages California's grid to issue temporary conservation alerts. The alerts were withdrawn as the worst of the heat wave abated.

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