Two giant wildfires in Eastern Oregon have killed hundreds of cattle and jeopardized many ranchers’ livelihoods. The Long Draw and Miller Homestead fires have burned more than 1,000 square miles of sage brush and juniper.
The fire leaves ranchers with nowhere 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 Yturriondebeitia’s own a ranch at the foot of the mountains.
“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,” he said.
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 seen 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. 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.”
“Eighty-five of our mothers died. That’s like our bank account.,” she said.
That’s about $200,000 lost.
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.Jeanette and Richard are one of dozens of ranch families that have experienced losses from the fires in eastern Oregon. 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.
Don Gonzales is with the Bureau of Land Management.
“The ranchers will probably be looking pretty hard to find places where they can graze,” he said.
Most of the land in eastern Oregon is federally owned. Ranchers lease from the BLM. Gonzales says it will take two years to recover from the fire- for the grasses to grow back. 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.”
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 Ytturiondebetia isn’t waiting for that money. He’s searching for a new piece of grassland to lease, south of where the fire burned. He wants to keep his herd together.
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 …”
It’s still early in the summer, he says. And the forecast calls for more dry lightning. In a few months, that land to the south could be on fire too.
Fire season in the northwest is just starting. And the national weather service is warning that lightening storms this week could ignite new wildfires.