Southeastern Oregon’s massive Long Draw fire: a harrowing escape

Long Draw Fire- Sowtheastern Oregon

Rosemary Stoddart couldn’t see much through the smoke, barely the road ahead. But she drove forward anyway, blaring the horn with the window down, hoping to find her borther. Dave Stoddart had called on his cellphone for help. Working on horseback to move cattle away from the flames, he’d been caught with the roar of the fire to his back.

As Rosemary Stoddart sped through the desert, Dave Stoddart galloped toward the road, flames leaping at his sides. First she heard his voice. Then she saw him emerge like an apparition from the smoke.

As he loaded his palomino, Trigger, into the horse trailer, his hat flew off. It was on fire. They jumped into the pickup and sped through the flames to a nearby ridge. Looking back, just one spot was not on fire: the one where she picked him up.

“The heat and the smoke–it was horrible,” Rosemary Stoddart said. “You couldn’t breathe, but we made it.”

The Stoddarts’ narrow escape in the rangeland of southeastern Oregon was one of the many hardships facing residents in the path of the massive Long Draw fire, the state’s larges wildfire in nearly 150 years.

The blaze, sparked by lightning on Sunday about 20 miles south of Burns Junction, has scorched more than 515,000 acres. Dozens of cattle have died. Range structures have burned. But most of all the fire has turned an expanse of rangeland into a blackened moonscape

“People say it’s just grass and ranchers and cattle that are ruined,” said Rosemary Stoddart. “But it’s ruined the whole habitat. There’s nothing left alive in the burned areas. Not even any bugs.”

Rosemary Stoddart, a 48-year-old fifth generation rancher, said she was stunned by the devastation. So was rancher Bob Skinner, 62, of Jordan Valley.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Skinner, also a fifth generation rancher. “It’s the biggest expanse of solid black that I have ever seen. It’s pretty darned sad.”

He spent the past week with other members of the rangeland fire protection association running from ranch to ranch, trying to put fires out. Everyone chipped in. They drove four-wheelers, bulldozers and pickups as skinner sprayed water from a 4,000 gallon truck. They managed to keep Dave Stoddart’s ranch six miles south of Burns Junction safe. But one of Stoddart’s neigbors lost cattle, and his rangeland was turned to charcoal, destroying grass his cows need to survive.

The Bureau of Land Management has nearly 400 firefighters and support personnel battling the fire, but it’s so massive that resources are stretched thin.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., formally asked the White House on Friday for federal assistance, saying the resources are needed because the state’s efforts have been strained because of other blazes burning across the West.

Skinner said locals usually work side-by-side with the BLM fighting fires. But this time, members of the local fire association have been battling blazes on their own as BLM firfighters fight on other fronts. The fire jumped U.S. 95, extensively damaging a power line. The road is now open but the fire swept eastward into the Owyhee Canyon. On Friday, with red flag warnings of extreme condition, firefighters tried to keep flames from leaping over the Owyhee River towards the Jordan Valley.

Skinner estimates that 12 ranches lost cattle.

Th fire has also taken an emotional toll.

Ranchers have had to shoot cattle, considered to be part of their family, to put them out of their misery. They’e seen land littered with carcasses. Even veteran firefighters have been brough to tears.

“Fighting fires is one thing but all this suffering,” Skinner said. “Even firefighters can’t stand this.”

But there has been reason for gratitude. Dave Stoddart made it to his 50th Birthday. He spent the day much like he spent the week, helping out neigbors.

The worst of nature brought out the best in the community.

“The amount of people who bound together–it’s humbling and heartwarming,” said Stoddart’s wife, Tami, 38. “It brings to the surface what’s really important: your community, and family, and friends. You’re in it together and do everything in your power to help a neigbor and a cow.”

–Lynne Terry, The Oregonian