Wheat harvest is off to a blazing start in Eastern Oregon — literally.
Emery Gentry, who farms about 500 acres of wheat near the small town of Weston, was taken by surprise when he got the phone call July 12 that one of the fields he leases had somehow caught fire.
“I was working with my harvest partners in the Hermiston area when I got the call,” Gentry said. “There was nothing I could do.”
Flames devoured roughly 50 acres of standing wheat and burned right up to nearby homes, prompting evacuation orders for some residents until firefighters could contain the blaze.
One day later, fire broke out again up the Walla Walla River in Cash Hollow, southeast of Milton-Freewater, torching several hundred acres of dry grass and wheat. The Substation Fire burning east of The Dalles in Wasco and Sherman counties has also grown to more than 29,000 acres as of Wednesday morning and is threatening homes and farms, prompting mandatory evacuations.
The incidents underscore just how hot and dry it has been leading up to this year’s dryland wheat harvest, exacerbating the risk of field and rangeland fires.
Average high temperatures so far in July have reached 90 degrees in Pendleton and Yakima, Wash. and 95 degrees in Hermiston, according to the National Weather Service. A red flag warning indicating heightened fire danger was also in effect through Wednesday evening from Pendleton west to The Dalles and as far south as Bend.
Gentry said he is not certain how the fire started in his unharvested wheat. Casey Kump, deputy state fire marshal based in La Grande, said the fire started in a corner of the property that includes a shop and barn, and appears to be accidental.
When he first heard the news, Gentry immediately called his father, who went out in a water truck and was soon joined by neighbors bringing additional trucks and disc plows to dig firebreaks.
“We have a truck with water on it all the time. People always have tractors hooked up to discs,” Gentry said. “My friends and neighbors dropped what they were doing and immediately came to the rescue. I’m really grateful for that.”
As a beginning farmer, Gentry said it hurts to lose 10 percent of his crop. He needs every acre he can get, but he knows the situation could have been much worse.
Gentry said it has been at least a month since the area received any significant rain, and farmers need to be on their toes for fires, keeping ignition sources and idling engines away from dry grass and stubble.
“The biggest thing obviously is just common sense,” he said.
Gentry expects to begin harvest by next week. Harvesting is already underway at lower elevations farther south and west, where forecasts seem to be a mixed bag.
Don Wysocki, extension soil scientist for Oregon State University in Pendleton, said most of the lower elevations in Morrow and Gilliam counties were short on rainfall during May and June, and he expects they may cut around 10-15 bushels of wheat per acre below average.
“The fall stands were good, and the crop looked pretty good all through winter and early spring,” Wysocki said. “But (precipitation) didn’t happen in May.”
To make matters more difficult, Wysocki said conditions for spraying grassy herbicides in spring were less than ideal, causing problems with cheatgrass and other weeds in some fields.
Conditions appear to be better at higher elevations in northern Umatilla County. Preston Winn, who grows 147 acres of wheat near Weston, said they received timely rains throughout the spring, and expects an average crop around 100 bushels per acre.
Interestingly enough, Winn said the early moisture had him prepared to spray for fungal diseases like stripe rust, though it never showed up in his fields.
“The growing conditions have been really quite good,” Winn said. “That always portends a good harvest.”