For Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill, it was a relief to see his friends and neighbors gather for a beer and a plate of pulled pork barbecue.
Magill has had a busy summer. Three wildfires have hit the farming community in the past month, including the deadly Substation Fire that killed local farmer John Ruby and ravaged nearly 80,000 acres.
“After what we’ve been through this year, it’s good for people to come out and be able to celebrate each other,” said Magill, who has lived in the area for nearly his entire life.
Community members gathered Sunday at Dufur City Park to rally support for local farmers and celebrate the town’s resiliency.
At times, the event felt more like a celebration than a memorial. A local country rock band warmed up the crowd. People ate and milled through a silent auction raising funds for victims of the fire.
Dufur Schools Superintendent Jack Henderson helped organize the event to raise awareness for the wildfires in the region and commemorate the tragedies of the past month.
“It’s really about the spirit of this community, people are always there to help one another,” Henderson said. “This fire, although tragic, really shined a light on that.”
Most of the farmers are still reeling from their losses and are consulting with local insurance agents. Roughly 100 farms grow wheat in Wasco County, and the crop makes up more than 90 percent of farmland in the area. Making matters worse, farmers were just on the cusp of harvesting what some were touting as the best crop in decades.
“Most people are just picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what the next step is,” said wheat farmer Jeff Kortge, who lost most of his harvest in the Substation Fire. “It’s a lot — probably hundreds of thousands of dollars on each farm out here.”
The cause of the Substation Fire is still under investigation. Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill said he’s assigned nine people to the case, and is working with state and federal agencies.
“This is a multi-jurisdictional investigation,” said Magill, who has referred to this as a criminal investigation. “We’re all working together to figure it out.”
Early estimates show 16 percent of all the land in Wasco County burned in these last three fires, according to County Commissioner Steve Kramer.
Kramer spent the last few weeks at the incident command center for the South Valley Fire near Dufur. Every time a new fire crew started their shift, he said they’d begin the meeting by thanking the local farmers, calling them instrumental in keeping the fires down.
“The locals have done such a great job,” Kramer said. “They know the lay of the land and how to get there. It’s been essential.”
Sunday’s commemoration was a welcome break from the nonstop fires that have hit the small town all summer. It was also a sign that things may finally be starting to return to normal. Just three days ago, firefighters emptied out of Dufur High School, which had been a staging area for crews for about a month.
“This is what we should be doing on weekends, not out there fighting fires,” said Kramer of the gathering.