The US West Coast is burning hotter, faster, and more extreme than ever before with wildfires charring more than 10 million acres last year alone. As climate change accelerates the severity of these wildfires, a national complex of interagency responders is at the ready to respond within hours of a major event. But little known to the outside world is a vast network of community organizations and private citizens powering the fire camps that house thousands of visiting personnel and equipment.
The Bootleg fire near Klamath Falls, Oregon started on July 6, 2021, on the Fremont-Winema National Forest, and quickly grew to hundreds of thousands of acres, challenging fire crews with "unprecedented" behavior and rapid, uncontrolled growth. The region's ongoing drought and dense forest condition contributed to a high severity fire that quickly became one of the largest in Oregon history, and was even cited as creating its own weather events.
Our film crew happened to be on the ground in Southern Oregon when the Bootleg fire flared up, in-production on a new feature film in Lakeview, Oregon, just east of the active fire line. As the fire grew, it started to threaten the homes of some of our film subjects and we shifted our lens towards the intensifying fire event.
After attending a joint incident command community meeting in Bly, Oregon, we synced up with the Fire Information Team and were granted access to the fire line to capture imagery from the ongoing firefight. It was heartbreaking to witness the utter devastation in the forest - but at the same time incredibly moving to witness the passion, grit, and determination of fire crews from all around the country working together towards a common goal. We knew we had to dive deeper.
Nick Johnson, who was featured in our last film Other Side of the Hill, and a resident of Lakeview, shared that his father was helping to run “fire camps” in the region as part of his job with the Klamath County School District. We were intrigued. First to learn what a fire camp was. And second to meet Nick’s dad.
When we pulled up to meet Steve Johnson the next day, we had no idea what to expect. By the end of our time with him, we were completely floored at the scope, scale, and speed at which the fire community sets up their tent cities and mobilizes to house, feed, and support thousands of personnel to protect life and property.
In total, the Bootleg Fire burned over 413,717 acres - about twice the size of New York City.
In light of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, its clear anthropogenic climate change is contributing to risk and severity of wildfire regimes. Stories like this one from Steve Johnson and all the folks involved in battling the Bootleg fire remind us of the great challenges ahead, but also of the power of community and coming together.
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