When summer hits in Wasco County, wheat rancher Jeff Kortge knows to throw a water tank in the back of his truck.

Before he heads out, he also grabs a CB radio, just in case he gets the call.

The call that says go now.

That’s because he and other farmers in the rural district are often the first responders to a fire.

“We don’t have a fire department in this area,” Kortge said this week as the Substation Fire devastated Oregon wheat country. “So basically if you live in the area, you are a firefighter.”

Kortge lives in a yellow house at the top of a hill above Fifteenmile Road with his wife Cynthia and their son, Cole.

Cynthia Kortge watches the billowing wildfire smoke from her back porch in Wasco County. Her husband Jeff farms the thousands of acres of wheat on their property, most of it was destroyed in the blaze.

Cynthia Kortge watches the billowing wildfire smoke from her back porch in Wasco County. Her husband Jeff farms the thousands of acres of wheat on their property, most of it was destroyed in the blaze.

Molly Solomon/OPB

Their family has owned this land since 1909 and have been farming it since the 1920s. Their acreage stretches all the way to the banks of the Deschutes River, and on a clear day, you can see across the Columbia River to Goldendale, Washington.

“It’s usually quite beautiful, but not today,” said Cynthia Kortge, motioning toward the thick smoke billowing in front of her family’s property.

Over just three days this week, they lost thousands of acres of wheat.

“The thing you have to remember, this is our neighborhood,” she said. “It’s not a subdivision, you’re not close together. You don’t have close neighbors like you might in a city.”

Burnt wheat farmland along Fifteenmile Road in Wasco County. Before the fires, these rolling hills were covered with amber grains ready for harvest.

Burnt wheat farmland along Fifteenmile Road in Wasco County. Before the fires, these rolling hills were covered with amber grains ready for harvest.

Molly Solomon/OPB

The amber wheat was on the cusp of harvest, and the Kortges said it looked like their best crop yet. Now they have barren land covered in a layer of smoldering, black ash.

“There’s a huge economic loss, loss of history,” said Brad McManigal, Cynthia’s brother.

He’s spent much of this week fighting fire alongside his friends and neighbors. Some have lost barns, their livestock, and homesteads that have been here for hundreds of years.

“Every single neighbor lost something in this fire,” said Cynthia Kortge. “Every single one.”

Few families have lost as much as the Kortges. Their relative, John Ruby, died in the fire trying to protect the farm land that means so much to life in this part of the state. 

“I don’t even think we’ve been able to sit down and look and calculate the enormous loss,” Cynthia Kortge said. “But all of this stuff is replaceable. Losing John’s life, there’s really no words for that.”

Roughly 100 farms here grow wheat. They make up more than 90 percent of farmland in the area.

And what John Ruby was doing in the moments before he died was common — working to protect his neighbors. Rescue crews found his body near a tractor. He’d apparently been using it to dig a fire line, as many farmers in this part of Oregon have done since the Substation Fire began Tuesday. 

“Local farmers were the first people on the scene,” said local cherry grower Ken Polehn, who is also the president of the Wasco County Farm Bureau. “And they were doing something about it before we could get enough resources here to really do anything else.”

Polehn says this area under fire is the heart of Oregon’s wheat country. He estimates the crop’s value in Wasco and Sherman Counties is about $46 million a year.

“It’s devastating. Crops are lost, out buildings are lost, hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment burned in just 48 hours,” he said. “This is the largest, most devastating dry land wheat farm fire in my memory and I believe the history of the county.”

It’s not clear yet how the Substation Fire started. But with each passing day, officials seem more and more sure it was human caused.

Carey Hughes is the owner of Huskey's 97 Market, the lone grocery store in the town of Moro, Oregon. She says most of her regulars are ranchers and farmers, who have been busy fighting the Substation Fire.

Carey Hughes is the owner of Huskey’s 97 Market, the lone grocery store in the town of Moro, Oregon. She says most of her regulars are ranchers and farmers, who have been busy fighting the Substation Fire.

Molly Solomon/OPB

In neighboring Sherman County, the small town of Moro emptied out after mandatory evacuations were ordered. A couple people who stuck around stopped by Huskey’s 97, the only grocery store in town, for coffee. They huddled around a cell phone Thursday morning watching a livestream of the latest fire briefing.

Store owner Carey Hughes said most of her customers are farmers and ranchers, which means they’re out on the fire line.

“All the ranchers, they all have firefighters on the back of their trucks, and they go out and help one another,” she said. “And if they didn’t, we would have a lot of lost homes around here.”

The phone rang as she talked; it was a food distributor asking if she’s open for business. She assured them that she’d be there, and put in an order for more bread.

Volunteers, she explained, had emptied her shelves to make sandwiches for the farmers volunteering to fight the fire alongside a growing number of professional fire crews.

When they returned from their shift, she hoped they’d have time for a change of clothes and, hopefully a bite to eat, before they heading back out to the fire line.