Taming the energy of a wildfire on Oregon’s high desert takes a lot of human energy and organization. That’s a fact well known by Summer Lake rancher and firefighter Kevin Leehmann.
Leehmann works as a full-time firefighter in LaPine, 75 miles northwest of his family’s 500- to 600-head cow-calf operation.
In 2018 he started building a fleet of bulldozers, water trucks, tankers and other fire equipment to spread out to vulnerable areas of Lake County as part of a quick-response, volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization called the High Desert Rangeland Fire Protection Association to help protect the area from wildfires.
The association recently signed a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Forest Service — “the first in the nation,” said Leehmann’s wife, Erica. It allows the volunteer group to fight wildfires on the public land that “surrounds our many farms and ranches.”
She said that during the Brattain wildfire in September, communities in the area were in constant peril.
“Our little town of Paisley was in direct danger,” she said, “and many of us, including our family, were on Level 3 evacuation notices for most of the week.”
The association’s volunteers got the fire under control.
“The slogan for the HDRFPA — comprised of local farmers and ranchers — is ‘neighbors helping neighbors,’ and that’s exactly what they do,” she said.
Kevin Leehmann took unpaid leave from his job and slept only about 10 hours the entire week during the most critical part of the fire, she said, adding that several other volunteers used vacation days or sick time “in order to be out on the (fire) line.”