PAISLEY, Ore. — At the eastern edge of the Bootleg Fire on Friday afternoon, there was a surreal sign of the life that once existed in a patch of Oregon forest now turned to ash, smoke and leaveless burnt trees: the murmurs of cattle.
Cows wandered through the blackened landscape of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. None of the firefighters seemed to pay them any mind. The western front of the fire has been contained for the most part. But the blaze has grown in the east.
“We’re holding this fire line,” said Nikolas Coronado, who was part of a crew of eight firefighters from New Mexico attacking the flames and embers with axes and chain saws.
Mr. Coronado and his colleagues cleared small fires and prevented embers from getting swept up by the winds and starting new blazes. It was unglamorous, no-tech, anonymous, sweaty work. His face was covered in soot. His gloves were blackened.
“Feeling great,” Mr. Coronado said. “Pretty fresh still.”
On the front lines of the largest active wildfire in the country, hundreds of firefighters from numerous states have struggled to beat back a blaze that has burned more than 400,000 acres. On Friday, the Bootleg Fire remained only 40 percent contained.
Fire officials gave reporters and photographers a tour of the blaze’s eastern zone along the so-called containment line, a barrier firefighters create to halt the advance of the flame. Small fires burned inside hollowed-out trees. Smoke rose from the blackened dirt as if the earth itself was roasting.
Six hours touring the edge of the Bootleg Fire on Friday — in addition to visiting small towns and firefighter camps earlier in the week — brought the scale of both the blaze and its response into focus. Miles and miles of pathways have been carved through the forest by hand and machine to halt the fire, creating an impromptu transportation network.
For all the might and resources of the more than 2,300 firefighters battling the blaze, what resonated was the simple and timeless nature of the work. Firefighter after firefighter, in the middle of 16-hour shifts, their yellow jackets dotting the bleak terrain, wielding little more than an ax.
The eight-person firefighting crew from New Mexico prepared to march uphill to check a section of the forest for small fires. It is dirty work: They ran their hands along the ground checking for heat, using a hand tool to break apart embers in the dirt. Others roamed the forest with a chain saw looking for trees that were ablaze. They cut off the burning portions so the crew could put out the fire.
“This is my third year fighting fires in Oregon,” said Orlando Eustace, part of the New Mexico crew. “This year is more extreme, with the drought and everything.”
The drought and hot temperatures this summer have helped fuel the Bootleg Fire. Firefighters estimate that 95 of every 100 embers that are carried by the wind ignite into flame when they hit the ground.
Fire commanders have said they are fighting two battles — the fire and the coronavirus pandemic. Nine firefighters have already tested positive for the virus. At the briefings in the camps where firefighters sleep and eat, officials remind everyone assembled to stand apart and socially distance.
Pieces of charcoal from the Bootleg Fire were visible on the bed of a drought-cracked lake.
There were public and private firefighters on the line on Friday.
Raven Parking works for Oregon Woods, a forestry, wildland fire and construction company based in Eugene. He put out smoldering embers with a hand tool and with a hose from a mobile water truck.
On the fire line some structures wear the same protective material as firefighters.
The abandoned cabins covered in a reflective flame-retardant material resemble spaceships parked in the forest. At one wrapped cabin, a picnic table nearby was deemed unworthy of wrapping and sat exposed to the elements.
“It’s essentially tin foil we wrap these houses in,” said Ryan Berlin, who works for the federal Bureau of Land Management and who serves as a spokesman for the Bootleg Fire response. “It helps protect from the embers and the flame front. It’ll deflect the heat to give them a survivable chance.”
The firefighters who do the wrapping do not charge property owners for the service. “Nah,” Mr. Berlin added. “They’re taxpayers.”
Firefighters extinguish flames in trees by chain sawing off the burning bits, depriving the fire of its fuel supply. They are seekers in this way, roaming through the forest and scanning for a single burning tree.
Private firefighters prepped their gear at a camp outside the unincorporated town of Bly. The camp is called a forward operating base. Bly’s population is 486; the base’s is about 1,700.
Smoke from the Bootleg Fire moved over the town of Summer Lake.
Elizabeth Quinn and her husband, Ed Schmidt, refused to evacuate their home despite being inside an evacuation zone. They kept track of the weather and the progress of the fire, and said they would leave if the flames got closer. “It feels like we are studying the disturbance of ecology in real time,” Ms. Quinn said.