Farmers and ranchers in north-central Oregon are already dealing with lost crops and forage following a rash of wildfires that charred hundreds of thousands of acres this summer across Wasco and Sherman counties.
Now, an environmental crisis may also be looming on the scorched, barren landscape.
Clinton Whitten, acting district conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in The Dalles, said high winds are eroding soil in burnt fields and rangeland, robbing the ground of vital plant nutrients and water-holding capacity.
On Monday, the NRCS announced funding for conservation projects in the wake of the Substation, Boxcar and Jack Knife fires, which combined to burn roughly 300 square miles in prime wheat and cattle country.
Financial assistance is available through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, to control soil erosion by planting cover crops and range grasses, while stopping the spread of invasive species like cheatgrass and medusahead.
The top priority, Whitten said, is in fields where standing wheat went up in flames, since they will be entering fallow next season.
“If (farmers) don’t do anything, it would be left bare until next fall when they plant,” Whitten said.
According to NRCS estimates, the Substation fire, which started July 17, affected roughly 31,000 acres of cropland over 86 farms in both Wasco and Sherman counties, including 18,500 acres of standing wheat. Up to a quarter of the region’s crop went up in flames, and one farmer — 64-year-old John Ruby — died trying to fight the blaze as he dug a firebreak to protect his neighbor’s property.
Wind erosion causes further damage, Whitten said, because it strips away soil and makes the ground less productive.
“The deeper your soils are, and the more silts and clays it has, the more water it will hold,” he said. “As you lose that with wind, it will lose more water, and that will affect crop yields.”
Yet another large fire ignited July 26 in the same area, sparked by farm equipment south of Dufur in Wasco County. The Long Hollow Fire was 33,451 acres and 95 percent contained as of Tuesday.
The Boxcar and Jack Knife fires were started by lightning in June, primarily affecting grazing pastures around Maupin and Grass Valley located farther south in the two counties.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, along with U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, have recently called upon the USDA to provide additional aid for local farmers affected by wildfires. In a statement, Merkley said this EQIP funding is a step toward recovery.
“While we need significant funding for recovery beyond the usual crop insurance or disaster assistance, conservation treatments will help restore land in the aftermath of this devastation,” Merkley said.
The initial deadline to apply for EQIP funding is Aug. 10. Whitten said they are still gathering information about how many producers are affected by the Long Hollow fire, and a second sign-up period will likely run through Aug. 24.
Producers may apply at the USDA service centers in The Dalles or Moro, or contact Whitten at 541-289-8559 ext. 112.