BEATTY, Oregon (CBS SF/AP) — Winds gusting up to 30 mph whipped through the Bootleg Fire burn zone Monday, forcing firefighters to retreat to safety as they battled a massive blaze that has grown to more than 343,755 acres in the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning for the region until 8 p.m. Monday. However, forecasters said the same condition will be in place from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

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U.S. Forest Service: Bootleg Fire (Oregon) Information 

“With atmospheric instability, it will be interesting to see how large of a pyrocumulus builds over the Bootleg Fire,” forecasters said Monday afternoon. “There are three distinct plumes burning over this fire and they all show small pyrocumulus clouds at this time. The concern here is if a thunderstorm eventually forms above the heated smoke plume. In any case, isolated storms are forecast just east of the fire.”

Pyrocumulus clouds, fueled by embers and super heated air, create their own erratic weather systems. The embers push out, igniting spot fires in the tinder-dry brush and trees, accelerating the spread of the blaze. The cloud can also trigger firenados — fast-moving, terrifying columns of fire and embers.

U.S. Forest Service officials described the fire conditions Monday as “extreme, crowning, running, spotting … Spot fires quickly exhibiting extreme fire behavior with very high percentage of ignition.”

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At one point during the overnight firefight, winds whipped the blaze into a frightening wall of flames.

“I was talking with our field operations guy a little bit ago,” said operations chief John Flannagan during his Monday afternoon briefing. “He said it (the fire) went across there pretty much like a hurricane, ripping trees out of the ground, tossing them (the trees) around. Pretty impressive fire behavior.”

The fire has grown to 476-square-mile and is burning 300 miles southeast of Portland in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest, which is a vast expanse of old-growth forest, lakes and wildlife refuges.

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It is among the most remote areas on the West Coast with few roads.

If the fire were in densely populated parts of Northern California — like last year’s Lightning Complex Fires in the San Francisco Bay Area — “it would have destroyed thousands of homes by now,” said James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry who studies historical wildfires. “But it is burning in one of the more remote areas of the lower 48 states. It’s not the Bay Area out there.”

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At least 2,000 homes have been evacuated at some point during the fire and another 5,000 threatened. At least 70 homes and more than 100 outbuildings have gone up in flames. Thick smoke chokes the area where residents and wildlife alike have already been dealing with months of drought and extreme heat. No one has died.

It’s small, unincorporated communities like Paisley and Long Creek — both with fewer than 250 people — and scattered homesteads that are in currently in the fire’s crosshairs.

“The Bootleg Fire is threatening ranch houses that are in pretty far-flung areas,” Johnston said. “There are no suburbs in that area.”

But the blaze is also moving ever so much closer to merging with the much smaller Logg Fire.

Unfortunately, both fires are advancing toward Path 66 — a vital electrical line corridor linking the California grid with power generators in the Northwest. The corridor is located right in the middle of where the blazes would merge.

 

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