Farmers in north-central Oregon are counting their losses after a massive 80,000-acre wildfire ripped through Wasco and Sherman counties, torching up to a quarter of the local wheat crop.
The Substation fire started July 17 on private land southeast of The Dalles and spread quickly, fanned by high winds and fueled by drought. Gov. Kate Brown declared the fire a conflagration as it jumped the Deschutes River, prompting hundreds of evacuation orders.
The blaze is now largely contained, though an estimated 1-2 million bushels of unharvested wheat went up in flames, crushing what was expected to be a bumper crop in some areas. Tana Simpson, associate administrator of the Oregon Wheat Commission, said Wasco and Sherman counties typically produce around 8 million bushels annually.
“Certainly, this is a disappointing loss for our growers,” Simpson said.
The fire also took a deadly turn, killing 64-year-old John Ruby, who was found near a burned tractor. Authorities say Ruby, a longtime Wasco County resident and farmer, died while trying to protect his neighbor’s property by digging a firebreak.
The Wasco County Sheriff’s Office is leading an investigation into the cause of the fire, which it described as “incendiary in nature.” Anyone with information should call the Oregon State Police tip line at 1-800-452-7888.
Brian Tuck, dryland crops specialist for Oregon State University Extension Service in Wasco and Sherman counties, said wheat harvest had just begun when the Substation fire ignited, bringing normal operations to a standstill while growers raced to defend their fields.
To make matters worse, yields were expected to be higher than usual thanks to timely spring rains, Tuck said, from 55-60 bushels per acre to 80-90 bushels per acre in many areas.
“Unfortunately, a lot of that crop is just being burned up here,” Tuck said.
Darren Padget, a wheat farmer near Grass Valley and member of the Oregon Wheat Commission, said firefighting is a normal part of the job for farmers and ranchers in central and Eastern Oregon, but the Substation fire was the biggest and baddest blaze they had seen in years.
“We’ll be talking about this for a long, long time to come,” Padget said.
When a fire starts, Padget said the first thing farmers do is hook up a disc plow to their tractors and dig fire lines to slow the spread of flames. The Substation fire, however, jumped fire lines like they weren’t even there, Padget said, and kicked up so much smoke he could barely see his hand in front of his face.
“We didn’t know what the right move was, at times,” he said.
Alan von Borstel, a fellow Grass Valley farmer, told the Associated Press they experienced day after day of horrendous winds on the fire line, and the inferno also started to create its own wind.
“As the fire gets closer, you actually start to feel threatened, and if it gets too close, we realize we can’t do it, (and) we get the hell out of Dodge,” von Borstel said.
Without farmers, von Borstel said the fire would not have been stopped as soon as it was.
Nearly all of Oregon is in some stage of drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor, including all of Wasco and Sherman counties, which are listed in “moderate drought.”
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission, said he expects farmers statewide to harvest around 50-60 million bushels of soft white wheat this year, most of which is exported to Asia make things like cakes, crackers and noodles.
The amount of wheat lost in the Substation fire will not impact the global marketplace, Rowe said, but no question leaves an economic scar locally — even for those with crop insurance, which covers average yields rather than actual losses.
“For some, they lost virtually their entire crop,” Rowe said. “Insurance can help, but it never quite makes you whole.”
Looking ahead to post-harvest, Rowe said the concern will shift to things like soil erosion on the charred landscape, and replacing forage for livestock in burned pastures.
“We’ve got a lot of bare, burned acres out there that will need some sort of vegetation this winter,” Rowe said.
Wes Jennings, farm program chief for the Farm Service Agency in Oregon, said requests for emergency relief are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Jennings advised producers to call their county FSA office as soon as possible to determine next steps.