In the community

Willowcreek blaze chars private, BLM land

Investigators are working to determine the cause of the Willowcreek Fire that burned more than 40,000 acres over four days, the first major range fire of the season.

The fire started the afternoon of Tuesday, June 28, on private property near Willowcreek and moved onto lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, engulfing 40,274 acres of sagebrush and grass. Fire officials contained about 75% of the fire by Friday, July 1, with full containment expected by Friday night.

The Willowcreek Fire covered 63 square miles of rangeland which, for reference, is 12 times the size of Ontario and almost 56 times the size of Vale.

Volunteers from the Burnt River and Vale Rangeland Fire Protection Associations responded Tuesday afternoon, facing high winds that pushed the fire northeast toward Ontario. They were joined by crews from the BLM, U.S. Forest Service, Vale and Ontario Fire Departments.

As of Friday afternoon, the Vale BLM reported that no structures were threatened, no cattle were harmed, and no evacuations were implemented because of the Willowcreek Fire. Smoke triggered the closure of Interstate 84 between Ontario and Baker City for several hours Tuesday night.

Aviation support to combat the fire continued throughout Wednesday, with fire air attacks dropping retardant and water onto the spreading flames.

Doug DeHaven, a member of the Vale Rangeland Protection Association, said he had friends who lost around 20,000 acres of winter grazing for their cattle. With the rising price of hay, this loss could make the fall and winter far harder for the local cattle industry.

“We’re just hoping that we don’t have any more,” DeHaven said. “Last year we didn’t have any fuel, this year we’re all in good shape for grazing for our cows and now we have to worry about fire.”

Mark McBride, chairman of the Vale rangeland association board, said the association “would like to thank their members and the Vale BLM, our neighbors, and rural departments, that showed up to help us.”

In Vale smoke cleared by Wednesday morning, and air quality levels had returned to normal, but the lifeguards at Vale City Pool faced an unusual challenge.

When Cadence Tolman and the other lifeguards arrived, a thin layer of ash had dropped onto the pool deck and mixed in the chlorinated water.

“It was a mess to clean up,” said Tolman.

The morning water aerobics classes and swim lessons were rescheduled, giving the pool time to filter out the mixture of chlorine and ash. According to the lifeguards, the pool has only closed in the past for air quality concerns, not debris from range fires.

A crew of firefighters stand by as they protect a structure from the Willowcreek Fire in Willowcreek on June 28, 2022. (The Enterprise/ISAAC WASSERMAN)
Flames of the Willowcreek Fire in Willowcreek on June 28, 2022. (The Enterprise/ISAAC WASSERMAN)

News tip? Contact reporter Mac Larsen at [email protected]

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