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Hundreds are still under evacuation orders as the nation’s largest wildfire chars more than 400,000 acres

<i>Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images</i><br/>
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Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images

By Aya Elamroussi, CNN

The Bootleg Fire is now the Oregon’s third-largest wildfire since 1900, and more than 2,000 people are still under some form of evacuation order, officials said Thursday.

“It’s kind of a dubious honor,” Oregon Department of Forestry spokesperson Marcus Kauffman said of the fire that started July 6 and had charred 400,389 acres by midday Friday, with 40% contained.

“But it’s not all bad news,” he said. “In the last couple of days, the fire has only grown 1,000 acres per day, and for a fire of this size, basically that’s a really strong signal that fire behavior is moderating.”

Still, there’s “a long road ahead of us to ensure the safety of the surrounding communities,” said Joe Prummer with the Northwest Interagency Incident Management Team.

With the climate crisis making deadlier and more destructive wildfires the new normal, 83 large fires are now burning in the US. Thirteen new large fires were reported Thursday. Together, they’ve destroyed nearly 1.4 million acres, prompting the response of more than 21,000 firefighters and support personnel, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Idaho is home to the most fires, with 23, and Montana is close behind, with 17. More than 522,000 acres have burned in Oregon, currently the most of any state, according to the NIFC.

Hundreds more fires are burning in the Canadian province of British Columbia, where a state of emergency was declared this week.

In California, the Dixie Fire in Butte and Plumas Counties has scorched 142,940 acres and is 18% contained, with fire “expected to remain extreme,” according to an update from Cal Fire on Friday.

The fire grew by almost 30,000 acres since Thursday’s update, about a 25% increase.

“The fire is burning in a remote area with limited access, extended travel times and steep terrain which hampers control efforts. Fire will continue to rapidly expand causing a need for the critical resources to control the fires spread,” Cal Fire said.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

The smoke has traveled far and wide and is expected to continue causing health problems across the US.

The air quality in New York City, home to more than 8 million people, took a hit Tuesday when the smoke created a hazy skyline and gave it the city’s poorest air in 15 years.

While air conditions in the Northeast significantly improved Thursday — thanks to a cold front that pushed out some of that smoke — millions in the Midwest and Southeast are still breathing air compromised by blankets of smoke that linger.

Many areas in the Northwest and Rockies, where the wildfires are burning, are also under air quality alerts. On Friday, the smoke is expected to move south, passing over Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama, before it moves back to the Northeast.

Largest fire takes toll on crews

The Bootleg Fire has demanded a massive response from firefighting crews — and presented some big challenges as it unfolds during a pandemic.

Nine firefighters tested positive for Covid-19, fire managers reported Thursday.

“Due to the number of positive cases, this will be reported to (the Oregon Health Authority) as a workplace outbreak,” the managers said. Anyone at a fire camp reporting symptoms — along with their close contacts — must isolate until Covid-19 results come back, under protocols developed with state health officials.

In addition, a firefighter got separated last weekend from his crew and was alone in the blaze for nearly three hours, officials said.

“He was not lost but got separated from his crew because he had to move in the opposite direction to maintain his own safety,” Kevin Keeler, a Nevada army guard helicopter pilot, said in a news release.

“The firefighter was in good spirits and was able to hike to the road to a waiting ambulance,” officials said.

Bootleg Fire chars carbon offsets

To make matters worse, the Bootleg Fire has also spread through at least one-fifth of forests set aside for carbon offsets in the nearby area as of Thursday afternoon, according to a CNN analysis.

The trees in these forests, known as Klamath East, were meant to survive 100 years to remove climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere.

But since the Bootleg Fire started, flames have scorched nearly 90,000 acres of trees set aside to offset carbon emissions on behalf of businesses and individuals. That’s around a fifth of Klamath East’s total land, according to a CNN analysis.

It will be weeks after the fire is out before the company can assess the impact on its forests, said Patti Case of the Green Diamond Resource Company, which runs the carbon project at Klamath East.

“While it may seem that nothing would escape the flames, often we find areas after the fact that are merely scorched and will survive. In other cases, the fire burns so hot that everything is devastated, and replanting is a challenge,” Case said.

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CNN’s Andy Rose, Dave Hennen, Chris Boyette, Daniel Wolfe, Tal Yellin, Renée Rigdon and John Keefe contributed to this report.

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