Two giant wildfires in Eastern Oregon have killed hundreds of cattle and jeopardized the livelihoods of at least 20 ranch families. The Long Draw and Miller Homestead fires have burned more than 1,000 square miles of sage brush and juniper. The fires leave ranchers with no where to graze the cattle they managed to save.
The night the fire started, a thunderstorm passed over the Trout Creek Mountains. Lightning ignited the dry grass.
Richard and Jeanette Yturriondobetia own a ranch at the foot of the mountains.
“The fire started way up on Blue Mountain. We could see smoke, so we went that direction and the fire came to meet us. It looked like hell. Or what you would imagine hell to look like,” he said.
Swift winds from the thunderstorm blew the fire west, toward the ranch. So Richard, his wife and daughter, and a few close friends saddled their horses and began rounding up cattle as the fire raced toward them.
“Cows are not afraid of fire. They just go where they normally go and so you have to get them to move,” Richard explained.
The wind kept switching directions. The fire trapped the animals and killed more than 130 cows and calves and one bull.
“They’re my cows. I just couldn’t help them. That’s the part that gets me,” he said.
“We’ve never experienced anything like this. I’ve never seen this,” said his wife, Jeanette.
Jeanette explained, “And people say to us we’ll lose more. If their feet are burned, or their bags are burned, their udders, they don’t have a chance,” she said.
This ranch is a cow-calf operation. It has a permanent herd of mother cows, and sells calves every year for beef. The family estimates it has lost a third of the herd, worth about $200,000.
“Eighty-five of our mothers died. That’s like our bank account,” Jeanette said.
What’s more, Richard said, most cows, like most people, do not thrive in southeast Oregon. The cows that he lost were well-adapted to life on the range, and he could depend on them.
“You can’t replace that cow that’s used to being home, and knows all the little things we do to survive. You bring a strange cow… it’s like taking me to town. They’ll be lost and they won’t know what to do.”
Today the the focus is on bringing water and food to the cows and calves that remain. Jeanette fills a trough with grain for the older calves, and feeds two younger calves formula from a bottle.
The Yturriondobeitias are among dozens of ranch families that have experienced losses from the fires in Eastern Oregon. 150 miles away, Gary Miller tried to gather up his cattle as the Miller Homestead fire roared across the high dessert, but the fire was too unpredictable. Miller estimates he lost between 45 and 70 animals. His cousin has flown over the burned area, searching for cows that survived in oasis that didn’t burn.
“I didn’t feel real good for several days. Some of my crew felt real sick too. I worry that a lot of our cows aren’t going to do well. Their lungs may be burned. I don’t know how it will affect them” Miller said.
Some of Miller’s cows survived by walking through the fire, and taking refuge in areas that had already burned.
“I found a bunch of cows that were actually walking into the fire. It wasn’t loud, it was more of a slow moving, burning fire. And they were walking right into it. I don’t know what told them to do that or why” he said.
Ranchers were counting on the land that burned to feed tens of thousands of cattle until winter. Now it’s blackened. In this arid landscape, it can take 30 acres of sagebrush and grasses to feed a single cow for a month.
“The ranchers will probably be looking pretty hard to find places where they can graze,” said Don Gonzales with the Bureau of Land Management.
Most of the land in Eastern Oregon is federally owned. Ranchers lease from the BLM. Gonzales says it will take two years for the grasses to grow back as the land recovers from the fire. Grazing is off limits during that whole time.
Gonzales said: “There are some areas that just got singed, which is good to regenerate it. But then there’s some areas where there’s not even a thumb sticking up out of the ground, where it cooked it pretty hot.”
Ranchers believe the two-year rest period is excessive, and that in some places, allowing grazing sooner could help knock back invasive annual weeds like cheatgrass that could spread quickly in the burned areas.
Gonzales says he has seen studies that confirm that grazing can help control cheatgrass as it sprouts back. The problem, he says, is that horses and cattle tug up on the grasses they eat, and could also rip up native, perennial grasses if they’re allowed to graze before the plants root systems are well established.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has declared a State of Emergency in Harney and Malheur counties, which opens the door to for federal aid.
But rancher Richard Ytturiondobetia isn’t waiting for that money. He saddles his horse and rides into the Trout Creek Mountains, south of where the fire burned, to search for a BLM allotment with enough water to support his cattle.
He said, “We’ll find something. I think we have enough feed for this year, so we don’t have to just panic and sell. But I don’t know …”
In the mountains, Ytturiondobetia spots some good news: a wild bighorn sheep that survived the fire. The rancher wonders what happened to the sheep he’s used to seeing on Blue Mountain, where the fire started.
“If they survived, it wouldn’t be too sporting to hunt them now,” he said.
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association is trying to find ways to locate new grazing land for the impacted ranchers. One option the association is pursing is getting ranchers access to old wheat fields that have been entered into a conservation reserve program and planted with perennial grasses. Much of the land currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program is in the Columbia Plateau, far from where the Long Draw and Miller Homestead fires burned. Yturriondobeitia doesn’t think he’d be willing to send his cows that far away, to an area where the fire danger is still high.
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“These are my babies. If you had three kids— I had 300 cows— and one of them died, are you going to take the other two and farm them out somewhere, in the same circumstance, where they could burn up? You want to put them close to the house, and keep your arms around them. And that’s the way my cows are.”
The Oregon Cattleman’s Association has set up a Fire Victims Relief Fund, and is also asking for in-kind and relocation assistance. Contact Kay Teisl, Executive Director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, at 503-361-8941 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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