Firefighting is part of the job for dryland wheat farmers in north-central Oregon, especially around harvest time with heavy machinery working in hot, combustible fields.
But Darren Padget said they have never seen anything quite like the Substation fire, which started Tuesday east of The Dalles and spread over 50,000 acres by Thursday morning in Wasco and Sherman counties.
“We’ve had plenty of fires before,” said Padget, a farmer near Grass Valley. “(This) was unlike anything we’ve ever seen out here.”
The Substation fire started on private land before racing out of control through grass, brush and standing wheat. On Wednesday, Gov. Kate Brown declared the fire a conflagration, pulling in resources from across the state to try to corral the blaze. So far, 178 firefighters from 32 agencies have arrived on scene, and more are on the way.
During a press conference Thursday, Brown said the fire is being investigated for possible arson. Anyone with information is asked to call the Oregon State Police tip line at 1-800-452-7888.
One person, a 64-year-old farmer identified as John Ruby, died while trying to fight the fire, according to the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office. His body was found near a burned tractor, and was reportedly trying to protect his neighbor’s property by digging a firebreak.
Padget, who also serves on the Oregon Wheat Commission, said it is normal for farmers in the region to team up and help fight fires, keeping water trucks and disc plows on hand for emergencies.
“The first thing you do is get the discs going,” Padget said. “Normally, that would be enough to slow it down.”
The Substation fire, however, spread 18 miles during its initial run, pushed south and east by wind gusts up to 35 mph. At times, Padget said smoke was so thick he could barely see his hand in front of his face, and flames easily jumped their fire lines.
“Nature has a way of letting you know who is in charge,” Padget said.
Brian Tuck, the local dryland crops specialist for Oregon State University Extension Service, said wheat harvest began earlier this month but has been interrupted by the fire while growers feverishly work to protect their crop.
Tuck said he is not certain how many acres of unharvested wheat have burned, but commiserates that some areas in the two counties were anticipating higher-than-average yields thanks to timely spring rains. Fields that normally would have cut 55-60 bushels per acre may have yielded upwards of 80-90 bushels per acre, he said.
“The sad part is this (fire) is burning up a bunch of wheat that wasn’t harvested,” Tuck said.
Soft white wheat, the predominant variety grown in Eastern Oregon, is currently trading at $5.90 per bushel out of Portland. Per the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Sherman and Wasco counties grow a combined 186,135 acres of wheat — which ranks third and fifth in the state, respectively.
While Padget said he has not personally lost any wheat to the fire, he knows that can change quickly given the fire’s unpredictability.
“Right now, as long as the winds don’t do something stupid or anything like that, Grass Valley should be fine,” Padget said on Thursday. “But after yesterday, all bets are off.”
Once the fire is extinguished, Padget and Tuck both said the main concern will shift to soil erosion on the charred landscape, stripping fields of vital nutrients.
Tuck said agencies will need to gather and discuss what resources are available to help farmers mitigate those risks.
“Erosion for this winter is going to be a concern,” he said. “If we avoid a hard, severe winter, that will be to our advantage.”
Wes Jennings, farm program chief for the USDA Farm Service Agency in Oregon, said they do offer emergency relief for farmers and ranchers, but it is still too early to tell which programs will kick in after the fire.
“It’s going to be on a case-by-case basis,” Jennings said. He advised producers to call their local county FSA offices as soon as possible to determine the next steps to take. Wheat farmers will likely have to lean on crop insurance, he said.
Until then, Padget said the number one priority for farmers is to protect themselves and their property.
“We’ll be talking about this for a long, long time to come,” Padget said.