Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire
The Long Draw Fire was Oregon's largest since the American Civil War. Now six months later, Derrick Henry looks back at the damage - as well as the BLM's rapid response to heal the land.
It's 2013. A brand new year. And it seems certain Mayan prognostications may have been overstated.
The world did not actually end in 2012. Here in eastern Oregon, a field of white reflects sunny blue skies.
Unlike the state's famous forests (and Portlandia TV show) to the west, Oregon's high plains to the east could almost be Arizona if it weren't for the freezing temperatures. After a recent storm, boots crunch and slide and catch again on slippery patches of ice.
And underneath those boots, the aftermath of the Long Draw Fire lies beneath a beautiful blanket of snow. To the uninitiated, it may be shocking to learn this scene marks Oregon's most devastating fire since the Civil War.
FROM A SPARK
Such is our past. A moment in Oregon history. But scorched earth and scarred rangelands will not be our future.
It was just after 6 p.m. on July 8 when lightning on the high desert kindled grass and sagebrush in the Long Draw Canyon on the north side of Blue Mountain, about 20 miles south of Burns Junction. That evening the fire measured over six thousand acres. But the fire, energized by dusty scrub brush and other fuels drying since the previous year, soon burst out of the canyon and reached the mountaintop. Firefighters could not keep up.
By 10 a.m. the next day, the Long Draw Fire had pushed north several miles to Whitehorse Road and measured 26,000 acres. Later that day, the fire jumped U.S. Route 95 and spread in all directions by an additional 296,000 acres. On July 10, the fire grew to nearly 453,000 acres and began pushing east into Owyhee Canyon.
GREAT FLAMES ARISE
Large fires create their own weather, giving them the energy to jump fire lines and roads. In fact, fire crews reported that the Long Draw jumped U.S. 95 and ran up a ridge across from the Oregon Department of Transportation's Basque Station facility within seconds.
"It was frustrating to say the least," said Al Crouch, a fire operations specialist in the BLM's Vale District who was an incident commander on the fire. Crouch said firefighters immediately recognized that the supply of unsheltered fuels and wind created the potential for a historic fire. More than 500 firefighters fought the blaze that burned as strongly at night as it did during the day. Within days, Long Draw, at 515,000 acres and counting, became the largest fire in Oregon history since 1865.
The fire destroyed some buildings and power lines. If small animals didn't die from being trapped in the fire's path, they died from smoke inhalation or suffocated as flames robbed their burrows of oxygen. Intense flames reduced sagebrush to their roots and destroyed their tiny seeds, lessening the chances that they would grow back to provide food and shelter for animals.
Ranchers already challenged by intense weather had to collect dead cattle and put down those suffering from burns or smoke inhalation. The Long Draw Fire affected 16 grazing allotments according to fire records. In some cases, the fire burned about three percent of allotment acres – in others, nearly 100 percent. Allotments in the area range from about 3,800 acres to nearly 320,000 acres.
"Those families are going to find it very hard to make a living," Crouch said. "They're a multiple user of the land just like anyone else is."
On July 16, the Long Draw Fire was finally contained at 558,198 acres, or about 872 square miles of Federal, state, and private land. As the fire died down, land managers knew that several challenges to rangeland health would linger.
Nearly half of the total area burned was core habitat for the greater sage-grouse, the bird that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has said warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act. While the FWS did not list the species due to a need to address other higher-priority species first, the BLM has been working with its partners to provide for long-term sage-grouse conservation, habitat protection, and species improvement that would make listing the bird unnecessary in the coming years. The Long Draw Fire may serve as a setback to those efforts.
The fire also destroyed parts of Herd Management Areas where wild horses roam, plus parts of various Wilderness Study Areas and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. Additionally, the fire increased the chances of invasion from 700 acres of noxious weeds thriving to the north.
The BLM's Vale District took initial steps to stabilize and rehabilitate the burn zone which measures six times the size of Portland. But they knew this project will require many partnerships.
Drivers on U.S. 95 can see for themselves the workload land managers and their partners face in resolving land issues like sage-grouse, grazing, wild horses, recreation, big game and wildlife. "Southeast Oregon now is in the spotlight," said Crouch. "This fire is a long time from being over. We've got a lot of work left to do."
Directly following the Long Draw Fire, the BLM launched an emergency plan to rehabilitate the thousands of distressed acres. The agency connected with many of the local landowners and stakeholders affected by the fire as well as state and Federal agencies. The goal was to bring together all hands to heal this land.
In only the first two months of rehab, the BLM and its partners seeded nearly 40,000 acres while rebuilding 30 miles of fencing. Before this year is up, more vegetation will be planted. More fences will be mended. Grazing and wildlife will return. Due to the critical nature of this work, the BLM set its own time frame of 12 months to complete all restoration.
But today the winter weather has slowed work. Albeit temporarily. Beneath all that snow, the rangelands receive a well-deserved rest as they await further rehabilitation to resume after the thaw.
Still, though it causes a break and makes one's boots cold and wet, the snow also serves as a bright reminder. It is a hopeful sight. One we observe every year, reminding us that from the barren cold of winter we shall soon witness a rebirth of life in the spring.
The land will come back.