Fires create two-year grazing delay

Jul 20, 2012

Two massive fires raging for more than a week in the sagebrush ranges of southeast Oregon are finally being brought to heel, according to officials at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). However, restoring the damaged ranges, say officials, may take years.

Ignited by lightning on July 8, the Long Draw and Miller Homestead fires spread rapidly, killing unknown numbers of cattle and wildlife, threatening homes, and burning a combined 1,100 square miles of rangeland.

While both fires are currently listed at near complete containment by BLM, the devastation in the wake of the massive blaze has left many of the region’s ranchers fearing for their livelih oods, and without a clear immediate future for their surviving stock. “It’s pretty tough,” says Jordan Valley rancher Silas Skinner. “A lot of folks already had to bring cows home. There’s nothing to eat; they’re completely burned out. Lots of those ranches, they saved their houses, and that was it.” The Long Draw fire, which began between Jordan Valley and the state’s border with Nevada, eventually consumed nearly 560,000 acres of rangeland between highway 95 and the Owyhee River, making it the largest single fire in an already fire-scourged west, and Oregon’s biggest blaze in over a century. The footprint of such a burn, says Skinner, is difficult to comprehend. “We got out there in the middle of it, and it was burned 360 degrees around us for as far as we could see,” he says.

According to Vale District BLM spokesman Mark Wilkening, the rapid spread of the fire was at least partially due to conditions before and during the burn. “Fine fuels were severely dry, the winds were blowing hard, and we had a high temperature,” explains Wilkening. “So we had the perfect conditions for a fire to really rip through.” Additionally, says Wilkening, with so much of the western U.S. already burning, a shortage of personnel and equipment made the fire hard to address quickly. While local, or ‘Type 3,’ crews can usually be on site fairly rapidly, the larger Type 1 crews necessary to fight a large fire are currently in short supply at the national level. “Type 1 crews are a tough commodity to get,” says Wilkening. “There’s always a shortage, and they’re in high demand. As the fire grew, we started calling for resources, but there’s always a time delay. You have to start calling for more engines, dozers, crews, etc. It takes time to mobilize all that.”

According to Skinner, the fire was three days old, and had spread to roughly 400,000 acres, before BLM crews were able to reach the scene. During that time, he says, the ranchers themselves mobilized to battle the flames as best they could. In response to fires of previous years, the region in 2008 established a rural fire department. “That crew was worth its weight in gold; those ranchers put out a lot of fire,” says Skinner, adding that ranchers dug an estimated 80 miles of barrier lines around the fire’s perimeter. The willingness of the ranching community to help, says Skinner, has been phenomenal. In response to a smaller fire that cropped up on the night of July 16, he points out, roughly 100 ranchers were in attendance to catch the fire early, rapidly quelling the blaze. “They came from all over the place,” says Skinner. “They all know, if you don’t stop it, it’s going to be on you next.”

Roughly 100 miles to the east, the Miller Homestead fire began on the same day as the Long Draw burn, consuming 161,000 acres, and threatening homes in the tiny community of Frenchglen, before being listed as 95 percent contained at press time. Two structures, both unoccupied, were destroyed, as well as unknown numbers of livestock. “It was crazy fire behavior,” said Burns District BLM spokeswoman Tara Martinak. “I don’t think a lot of people were expecting it, and certainly not this fast.” While the community is relieved to have the fire largely contained at this point, several ranchers have speculated that better communication between firefighters and locals, particularly over the use of ‘back burning’ may have allowed them to save at least some of their cattle.

Back burning, also known as back firing, is the practice of lighting smaller fires ahead of the path of the main fire to consume fuel before the larger fire can reach it. While it can be an effective means of stopping a wildfire, it can also trap animals between two parallel blazes, something that Frenchglen rancher Gary Miller worries may have happened to his stock. “In a typical fire, the cattle can get away,” says Miller. “It’s when they start lighting back burns that they get trapped, and then you’ve got to figure out which fire burned them up.”

Miller points out that better communication between firefighters and local ranchers may have afforded an opportunity to get livestock out of the way first. “Everything they lit on us was done at night, which didn’t give us a lot of opportunity to help them, if there was anything we could have done.” Miller explained that, at 1:30 am, he opened gates on his property to allow his cattle a path out of the back burned area, only to find at dawn that more back fires had been touched off in the path of the escaping stock. “That seems to be a huge problem,” he said. “When it elevates to a Type 1 fire, there’s very little local control. When those guys show up, they get a map out, draw a line, and that’s what they operate with.”

While most area ranchers acknowledge the need for back fires as a tool to combat wildfires, Miller wishes he could have had greater involvement in the process. “The locals are the ones who know where the fuel loads are, where the cattle are, and where the buildings are,” he points out. Martinak acknowledges that communication can be difficult with so much happening so fast, and with firefighters facing decisions that must be made rapidly on site. “I can understand the rancher’s frustrations; it’s even a difficulty for us,” she says.

“That transition to a Type 1 crew, getting the teams up to speed on residences, allotments, etc., in a region where they don’t live can be difficult. We’ve been talking a lot about how we can improve those communications, but it’s difficult on the ground with so much happening so fast.”

While the exact number of cattle lost to the two fires may not be known for several weeks, a more immediate concern are the losses in grazing acreage, which will leave an estimated 11,000 head of cattle with nothing to eat in the coming months. “It’s really affected six or eight ranchers down here,” says Miller. “We need some immediate feed of some sort, there’s absolutely nothing left.”

On July 17, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a state of disaster in the afflicted region. While this step will allow the use of federal monies through such programs as livestock indemnity and livestock forage assistance, the availability of these programs hinges on the outcome of the 2012 Farm Bill, currently being debated in congress. Should the Farm Bill pass, the decision would be retroactive, but for the time being, ranchers will have to cover those costs themselves.

On July 13, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres would be made available for affected ranchers in Malheur, Harney, and adjacent counties. Oregon officials are working to expand this area, pointing out that the region specified by FSA encompasses just 1,500 acres of CRP land. While it is expected that further CRP acreage in the northern portions of the state will be made available, ranchers point out that there will be considerable cost associated with shipping and managing cattle so far from home.

A better solution, say some, would be an alteration to BLM policy, which calls for two full years of rest before grazing can be resumed. The policy has long been a thorn in the side of Great Basin ranchers, who point out that the fuel load accumulated in two years is often enough to lead to another fire, which then requires two years rest, creating a perpetual cycle of burning that threatens private property and prevents the return of livestock to BLM ground indefinitely.

Ranchers, as well as some researchers, have pointed out that grazing in the first year following a fire, if done carefully, does not harm returning grasses, and can prevent future fires. “It’s pretty amazing on our private land,” says Miller. “Where we graze, the fire stops in those areas. You don’t want to overgraze, but it helps to reduce those fuels.”

While Martinak says that no changes to the two-year policy are planned, her office has discussed adding some flexibility to the rule, on a case by case basis.

In the Vale District, Wilkening echoes this sentiment, and adds that every effort will be made to restore the afflicted landscape as quickly as possible.

“It’s going to be a big hit. We know that this is going to affect lives, and that it has already affected lives,” he says. “I don’t know how we’re going to minimize those impacts. We’re doing everything we can to get the land back into production, back to where it can sustain grazing, wildlife, recreation, and everything else associated with these grounds.” That’s a process that Wilkening cautions may take several years. “This was also prime habitat for sage grouse, and there’s an opportunity to work with specialists to find the best way to bring that back. A lot of people are going to have to pull together to work and get this thing back, and it will take some time.”

In an effort to provide assistance to affected ranchers, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) has started a fire victim’s relief fund. Those willing to make a cash or in-kind donation (hay, etc.), or to provide assistance relocating affected cattle, are encouraged to contact OCA Executive Director Kay Teisl at 503/361-8941, or by email at — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent