Fire aftermath clouds future

Kitty and Mike Filben talk about their home being saved by a host of friends, neighbors and strangers when it was threatened by the South Valley Fire.

Dufur Gap Road rancher Mike Filbin is relieved that U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., was successful in his bid to have the federal government allow emergency grazing on some preserve lands.

The South Valley Fire came within 15 feet of destroying Filbin’s home and outbuildings last week. Although quick action by other farmers saved the family’s structures, 25,000-30,000 acres of the federal land they hold permits to use were damaged by the flames and will be off-limits for the next year or two.

“At least now we’ve got some help to deal with all this,” said Filbin of being able to turn out some of his nearly 500 pair (cow and calf) on Conservation Reserve Program land.

Under the CRP program, the government pays farmers to take croplands out of production and convert them to vegetative cover to reduce land erosion, improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat and riparian buffers.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Aug. 8 that Walden’s request to let cattle graze in these areas for the immediate future had been granted.

“Folks now have some flexibility while Congress and the [Trump] administration work on a long-term plan,” said Justin Discigil, communications director for Walden.

Filbin said, even though use of CRP properties will feed some livestock, he and other ranchers are likely to need more hay to get through the winter. He is already using some of his winter stockpile to feed pregnant cows while he deals with the aftermath of the fire.

He expects the price of hay to increase dramatically because demand will be high.

“I hope that doesn’t happen, but it generally does when there is a situation like this,” he said.

The typical pregnant cow eats about 35 pounds of hay per day in the winter and adding a few months to the feeding cycle means that he will need a couple hundred extra tons of hay this year, said Filbin.

He and his wife, Kitty, are unsure if any of their cattle died in the fire that is 90 percent contained but still smoldering in spots. Mike is in the process of bringing them all in about a month earlier than planned.

Mike said if the Bureau of Land Management and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reseed the property he has permitted rights to this fall, it should be ready for grazing after a year of rest, although some federal officials are pushing for two years of recovery.

Meanwhile, Filbin said protein blocks are being provided by SweetPro at a drastically discounted price to help affected ranchers get pregnant cows the nutrition they need. The discount is possible, he said, because of donations by the Bank of Eastern Oregon and other companies.

The past week has been something of a nightmare, say the Filbins, but also a time of gratitude because of all the help they have received.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mike of the work done Aug. 1 on their behalf.

He was working out in the shop that afternoon and smelled smoke, which alerted him to trouble. Jumping on his tractor with an attached plow, Filbin headed up the hill behind the house (northeast) to check out the situation.

He could see the fire headed their way in the brisk wind, so he got busy creating a fire break. Before he knew it, Filbin said the flames were on him and he had to race out of the danger zone in almost zero visibility.

“With all the stubble on the ground from no-till and the dried grasses, there is so much burning mulch that the smoke and dust just blind you,” he said.

Filbin was unaware that the tires on the plow had melted in the heat until he got down to the roadway. Swirling smoke surrounded him as he made his cautious way home, sure that all he would be seeing were smoldering ruins. He knew that Kitty would have evacuated and worried that she would not have a home to come back to.

“I thought there would be a bunch of metal roofs laying on the ground,” he said.

However, Filbin said when he neared the driveway, the smoke cleared, and he saw trucks parked everywhere around the homestead that he and Kitty bought from the family in 1994. That site has been in the family since the turn of the century.

“I broke through the wall of smoke and the house was still standing and there were people everywhere working on the place,” said Filbin. “It was just unbelievable.”

Kitty had only been home for about an hour from deployment to a fire in Heppner as part of an incident response team when she got the knock on the door that it was time to leave. She was in the process of stowing family pictures and other memorabilia in her vehicle with help from friends when neighbors and farmers from as far away as Antelope, Wamic and both Sherman and Hood River counties descended on the scene.

“It was the most wonderful sight that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “There were about a zillion people in the yard and they were everywhere setting up sprinklers, rounding up the horses and even pulling bikes from behind the garage to save them. It was wonderful.”

Some of the famers had arrived in pumper trucks and ringed the property to keep water on the homestead.

Mike said Matt Ruby, who lives on Fifteenmile Road, and his wife, Kylie, trailered the Filbin horses and got them to the corral on the Tygh Ridge property that he leases from the government.

Matt then returned to jump on the bulldozer and head up the hill to the south to stop the advance of flames from that direction.

Filbin’s son, Nate, raced home from a job in Canby after hearing that his parent’s house had burned to the ground. He wanted to make sure they were safe and help save whatever they could.

“We were surrounded on all sides,” said Mike of the hellish scene.

He said it was especially poignant to have Matt putting himself in harm’s way when his father, John Ruby, 64, of Mosier died July 18 after being overtaken by flames while disking a fire line in a wheat field just east of The Dalles.

“That’s just a good family, they’ll help anyone who needs it,” said Filbin.

Neighbors Shawn Brumley and his daughter, Brooke, rounded up the Filbin cattle that were on scene and transported them to the arena on Tygh Ridge. “They did so much, everyone did so much, and we are just so thankful for them all,” said Kitty.

Mike got on the dozer at one point and headed up the hill behind the house to stop the flames from getting into the upper branches of towering oak trees.

“I had a pretty good fire line around the barn and shop but when the wind’s blowing, nothing’s safe,” he said.

Miles of fencing burned up in the blaze and will have to be replaced, yet another chore for the coming months in an already busy schedule.

Filbin said it is likely the government will pick up much of the cost of fence replacement, but details have yet to be worked out.

Meanwhile, he said fire crews are still traveling roadways in the South Valley Fire zone, a little more than 20,000 acres, looking for hot spots that could reignite in the wind and heat.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Filbin of the fire’s aggressive nature. “But there have been plenty of people helping out and still are. If it wasn’t for them, this would have been a total disaster.”

The South Valley Fire involved 500 firefighters from various agencies and the estimated cost of suppression is $5.23 million. The flames threatened 212 structures and destroyed 18 structures. More than 600 people were affected, some of whom are still under a Level 1 (get ready to go) evacuation status.

The fire ignited Aug. 1 in an unoccupied shop on South Valley Road.

That blaze followed the Long Hollow Fire that was sparked July 26 by a combine harvesting wheat about five miles southwest of Dufur and consumed about 33,451 acres, destroying one historical building.

The Substation Fire started July 17 on the east side of Highway 197 just outside The Dalles and moved about 300 feet a minute due to very high winds.

It destroyed about 80,000 acres in Wasco and Sherman counties before it was contained.

Four homes and numerous barns and outbuildings were destroyed.

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