A wildfire burning in southeastern Oregon is being called the state’s largest blaze in more than a century.
The Long Draw Fire is bigger now than the Biscuit Fire that started 10 years ago Friday. The fire is burning grass and sagebrush in a sparsely populated area near Oregon’s borders with Nevada and Idaho. Another fire near Harney Lake is called the Miller Homestead fire. On Thursday night, nearby residents were told to abandon their homes as that fire moved in from the south.
Malena Konek says if it weren’t for the firefighters holding their ground this week, her house wouldn’t look much different from the charred brush just a hundred feet away.
But Konek’s mind was not so much on her house as on a pasture about 2 miles away.
“At 1 a.m., when that fire came off the rim and hit that field, I had a hundred head of cattle in there,” she says.
Konek didn’t want to see her cattle suffer. It’s not a pleasant death, she says. All of her animals did make it home that night. It wasn’t until later that she realized how close she came to disaster.
“When you’re in that position and if you lose cattle like that is that a total loss or are there insurance for these types of things?” reporter David Nogueras asks.
“No, it’s a loss,” Konek says. “Some people can insure their cattle. I didn’t have mine insured.”
Stacy Davies is the manager of Rolling Springs Ranch in Frenchglen. He says Konek isn’t alone. He says for most ranchers, insurance doesn’t make much sense.
“The reason being the premium is so high compared to the value of the animal that it’s just too expensive to insure them,” he says.
At least 70 cattle have been lost in the Miller Homestead fire. But Davies says the biggest loss will be accessibility of forage. Ranchers need to feed their cattle. And because grazing on Bureau of Land Management land won’t be allowed for at least three years, many ranchers could be forced to sell.
“At this point we don’t know what we’ve lost,” says Mark Wilkening, the public affairs officer for the BLM’s Vale district, where the Long Draw fire is burning.
He says plans to rehabilitate the land could begin before the fire is even put out.
“So we’re going to actually go back in, and we’re going to do some seeding with what we call our rangeland drills, and we will put a mixture of native seeds out there to rehab the area, and we hope that we’re going to get the moisture because that’s what will help us,” Wilkening says.
Right now, one of the biggest areas of concern for ecologists is potential loss of habitat for the sage grouse.
Due to human encroachment and habitat loss, this chicken-like bird is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. By some estimates, only about 200,000 sage grouse are left in the U.S. And both the Miller Homestead Fire and the Long Draw fire are burning in the species’ prime habitat.
“Sage grouse need sage brush, and that takes longer to re-establish,” says Matt Little, Conservation Director with the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
Little says it sometimes can take 100 years to re-establish the habitat. Complicating those efforts further could be the sheer size of the area affected, as well as the availability of native seeds.
Wilkening said he and some of his colleagues did some quick paper-napkin figuring of how much seed could be needed. The rough calculation: enough to fill 40 semi-tractor trailers.
(This was first reported for OPB News.)
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