Farmers in northern Oregon were looking forward to harvest this year. After a dry spring and fading hopes of an above-average crop, their soft, white wheat fields started to show promise this summer. As harvest kicked off, and yields began to roll in, and it was a bountiful wheat crop that came as a surprise to farmers in Wasco County, Ore.
“It was such a cool spring that it turned out better than we thought, so we were happy,” said Kevin Duling, owner of KD Investment Services who resides in Wasco County. “We were thinking it was going to be average or above for most of this area. Up north where this fire was, it’s 70 to 80 bushel country, and they were in the 70 to 95 bushels per acre range. So, very high yields for the amount of rain we got”
The Substation Fire in Oregon quickly turned those hopes into fear, as the flames threatened wheat, livestock and homes in its way. It’s a fire that’s already destroyed homes and burned 80 square miles of wheat. Duling said the fire was so fast and furious that farmers who battled the flames couldn’t get ahead of it, mainly trying to play catch-up and save the structures and animals they could. They prioritized lives over their own crops as walls of fire up to 30 feet raged across Oregon’s farm country.
“Everybody had just started wheat harvest, so nobody had a decent amount cut yet,” said Duling. He helped other farmers battle the flames this week. “We lost – at least in this county alone- well over a million bushels. That’s a very uneducated guess, because my clients alone are close to 700,000, so it could be more like 2 million – I just don’t know”
Duling said he worked on a hotshot fire crew in college battling fires, and this wildfire was the worst he’d ever seen.
“This one was bad because it happened at 2 p.m. on a 100 degree day with 30 mph winds, and it was an arson fire,” said Duling. “They put it right in the spot where it would just cut the Wheat Belt – it was just horrible. This one had such severe wind speeds and low-humidity and no recovery of humidity at night, and so it was just a worst-case scenario.”
It’s a remote area and as the fire grew quickly, it was farmers and ranchers who battled the flames. Farmers used water tanks and discs to try to control the flames, but the fire proved to be too furious, jumping the river and scorching land in the next county.
“Probably 90 percent were farmers and neighbors, everybody had their disc out trying to disc out in front of it,” said Duling. “The trouble is when these fires start, everybody drops everything and we run to where the smoke is, but this one moved so fast that everyone just had to play catch-up from then on. You’d get ahead, and then it got so big that everyone was trying to scramble to their homes to see if they even had a home.”
“The fire couldn’t be managed without the firefighters, farmers and ranchers working together,” said Bailey Jenks, Willamette Valley, Ore. “The Substation Fire in Oregon wiping out over 50,000 acres of ripe wheat and grassland. It’s mostly put out as of today, but we’re watching spots that could take off in the wind shifts.”
It’s the wind shifts that made the fire this past week unmanageable and causing fatalities. John Ruby, 64, died trying to save his neighbor’s property. Neighbors said Ruby had a passion for growing wheat and a passion for helping people.
As farmers and ranchers assess what’s left, and sift through all the damage that happened before their eyes, it’s a reality that’s not easy to grasp. The wheat crop had the potential to be good, but is now left in ashes, as many didn’t insure to the level they were seeing this year.
“The price prospects for soft white wheat are extremely high with Australia struggling and not much carryout this last year, so I guarantee they didn’t insure enough for what the yield and the price are going to be,” said Duling. “I’ve heard of a guy in Sherman County who lost everything and he was harvest around 100 bushel per acre wheat,” said Duling. “That’s just phenomenal. It was probably 60 bushel ground doing 100. He didn’t insure for that.”
As Drought Spreads, Expect a Rampant Wildfire Season
If the current wildfires raging in the West are any indication of what’s to come, it could be another wild wildfire season. As the U.S. Drought Monitor shows severe drought leaving scars across the West, that dryness could spark more severe wildfires in the months ahead.
“Last year we had a big wildfire season in the northern Rockies. I suspect that may be a little further west this summer, because we've had our dryness cascade and points westward, which is an area of the country we don't normally think about wildfires being a big deal,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meteorologist Brad Rippey.
Rippey said that comes on the heels of a near-record-breaking wildfire season in 2017, charring nearly 9 million acres. It was not only large, but came with a hefty price tag. The U.S. Forest Service spent $2 billion to fight the fires, setting a new record.
“A couple of areas we're watching for potential drought development include the Pacific Northwest,” said Brad Rippey.
The U.S. Drought monitor shows dryness currently covers nearly 94 percent of Oregon and 91 percent of Washington. Washington's drought spread 25 points in a week. It’s more severe drought currently plaguing Nevada and Colorado, where wildfires rage on.