Fire season arrives in a big way

It’s peak fire season in Malheur County and it shows.

Last week federal, state, and local fire crews scrambled to contain fire complexes near Rome, Jordan Valley, and along the rim rock above Lake Owyhee.

A near-daily appearance of thunderstorms dropped lightning across the remote reaches of the dry county, igniting one fire after another.

The largest blaze, the Bowden fire, burned 16,000 acres 22 miles south of Rome.

The Jordan Valley and Lake Owyhee fires burned smaller, but in both instances, structures were at risk and so were livelihoods. Fire crews from around east Oregon coordinated to contain the flare-ups.

The Hawk fire Thursday, in Jordan Valley, reported Thursday, scorched over 1,400 acres before it was put out. Both BLM and rangeland protection association crews took the afternoon and night dousing the flames and digging line.

Annie Mackenzie, a Jordan Valley Rangeland Protection Association volunteer, spent nine hours racing along the front line in an open-air buggy, a simple slip-in water tank and a radio the only tools at her disposal. Exposed as she was, the fire often burned too hot to get close, and her slip-in tank was too small to attack fire head on. But in the rough, steep, terrain of Jordan Valley, nothing could get around faster than her.

Mackenzie had spent the morning with her father, moving cows. When she arrived home in the early afternoon she saw smoke, and soon after her radio chimed in. There was a fire.

She and her brothers grabbed their gear, loaded their vehicles and were about to head out, but hit a snag. The truck used to haul their D-7 Caterpillar broke down. Bulldozers are too critical a resource to leave behind. Sacrificing precious minutes, they loaded the Cat onto another truck and rushed to the fire.

Radio communication among her fellow rangeland protection members was at some points shaky, and she acted as a courier, insuring that any critical information reached those who needed it.

She kept watchful during her solo patrol for what everyone else might miss.

“The fire tried to jump their line twice,” she said. “I was able to catch it with that little buggy before it took off again.”

Like many members of the Jordan Valley Rangeland Protection Association, she has a lot to lose if a fire gets out of hand. Her two brothers were out there with her, one in a bulldozer, another in a fire engine with a cousin.

Hawk was about 10 miles from US 95, and about halfway between is an old homestead belonging to the Mackenzies.

“It would have been heartbreaking to lose that house,” Mackenzie said. The homestead was built in the 1880s and her grandfather bought it 50 years ago from another family.

“We’ve got a lot of fond memories as kids putting up hay down there, camping out in the old cabin,” said MacKenzie.

The homestead might not have the same value to her neighbors as it does to her, but the Jordan Valley Protection Association is close knit, she said.

“It’s dang sure all friends and family,” she said. “A lot them, it’s not close to their range or their cattle, but they still showed up.”

The fast response to that and other fires didn’t go unnoticed, particularly among those who ranch in the sage regions of the county.

Larry Williams of Tree Top Ranches wrote to local BLM officials, noting responses this year were “very different” and deserved praise.

“Your response time was excellent,” Williams wrote. “Your crews arrived adequately equipped and ready to get on the fires – which they did. Their collaboration and communication with us was excellent.”

Williams said the crews objective was clear – “to get on these fires and get them out, which, again, they did.”

The Owyhee complex began Friday night with a series of three lightning-caused fires, growing Saturday when another thunderstorm rolled through setting off three more blazes. The six fires burned up a total of 3,500 acres, and were announced fully contained Monday morning.

Despite proximity to the Bureau of Land Management Vale District office, poor road conditions and punishing terrain made the fires challenging.

“It takes a long time to get anywhere around here,” said Al Crouch, a bureau fire specialist. “Sometimes the fire can be 1,000 acres before you even get there.”

The Deer fire flared up Saturday, and two hotshot crews out of Prineville were ordered out to the scene. With their lighter vehicles, the crews were able to reach the blaze quicker than a standard BLM fire engine.

By the time Crouch arrived Sunday, members of the hotshot crew were huddled together, covered in soot under the shade of sagebrush, resting and waiting, making sure nothing sparked again.

The 47 acres of ash was “somewhere between contained and controlled,” crewmember Sadler Schwartz said.

After checking in on the Deer fire, Crouch headed back to a temporary command post at the Twin Falls Campground that was still being thrown together. A small collection of tents were spread around the site, with tables, chairs, RVs, a refueling truck, a refrigeration truck, portable toilets, and a wash-up station.

A helitack team from the Burns district BLM sat just outside the camp a few yards from their chopper, waiting for the next call.

“The air resources were a major role in getting this complex contained,” said incident commander Sam DeLong.

The proximity to Lake Owyhee allowed the pilot to refill the chopper’s 240-gallon bucket and make a rapid return to the fire.

Even with full containment, work remains. A fire might look completely extinguished when it isn’t. Another thunderstorm could come. There’s cleanup and cataloging to do.

The fire camp is a necessity, DeLong said, because the terrain makes logistical support unreliable.

“Sure, it would be nice if the roads were all paved, but that probably isn’t going to happen.” DeLong said, better to have the support come to them, than the other way around.

“It’s not just physical fatigue, it’s mental fatigue,” DeLong said. A temporary command post is a place to rest, eat, relax, can help combat that fatigue.

“I’m tired of being here. I miss my family. That stuff gets on you after awhile,” DeLong said.

Have a news tip? Call Mitchell Willetts at 541-473-3377 or email [email protected].