The summer of 2018 may not have brought enough smoke to The Dalles to equal the Eagle Creek Fire’s atmosphere-choking output in 2017, but it was still a season notable for its wildfires, which brought major and ongoing impacts for farmers and communities in Wasco and Sherman counties.
Towards the end of June, lightning started about 70 fires across central Oregon, leading to widespread road and recreation closures. Locally, firefighters had to contend with a number of small blazes, such as the 6.5-acre grass fire that burned June 25 at 1915 Lambert Street, The Dalles, and a fire in the Memaloose Park area that burned about 65 acres a couple of weeks later.
But this was only the beginning of what would become a catastrophic summer fire season for the area, with not one but three major wildfires — the Substation Fire, South Valley/Boxcar Fire and Long Hollow Fire — that burned about 133,450 acres of land between them and generated more than 3,700 911 calls about fires over a 17-day period during July and August, according to estimates at the time by Wasco County Sherif Lane Magill.
By the end of summer, farmers in the region had lost an estimated $20 million in burned wheat and other grains, as well as acres of grazing lands and miles of fences.
On July 17, at about 1:30 in the afternoon, a brush fire started just south of The Dalles, on the east side of Highway 197 near the Celilo Convertor Station.
Weather conditions at the time were extremely hot and dry. Strong winds blew the fire southeast, into fields of fully ripened wheat — the best crop in many years — and it began to mushroom out of control.
“Everyone tried to get ahead of it, but it was everywhere — it was just unbelievable,” said Kylee VanOrman-Ruby, whose family’s home on Gary Roberts Market Road was consumed by the flames only a few hours after the fire started.
The VanOrman family managed to get their animals to safety on Fifteenmile Road, but they later had to load them up again and flee a second time. “The flames were like lava coming over that canyon,” Kylee remembered.
For some reason, the conflagration left a gasoline tank untouched on the house site. A chicken named “Clucky,” which the family had left behind, was also found sauntering around the untouched part of the yard the next morning.
But the area at large was not as fortunate.
The Substation Fire tore through Wasco County, jumped the Deschutes River and roared across county borders into Sherman County.
By Friday, July 20, it had been declared the highest-priority emergency in the nation. A couple of days later there were nearly 300 firefighters, hailing from 73 different agencies across Oregon and Washington, helping battle the flames.
“It was so fast you couldn’t outrun it. The wind was just howling,” said Wasco County Chief Deputy Scott Williams, who estimated the gusts at 35 miles per hour.
Williams said the heroism shown the first night of the fire was amazing because farmers repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to help others.
“The fire was everywhere and then out of the flames came a farmer riding on a tractor,” he recalled.
Tragically, one such farmer didn’t get out in time. John Ruby, 64, was found a short distance from his burnt tractor. Investigation suggested he was working on a fire line to protect his neighbor’s property when he died.
The Substation Fire ignited on the first day of what would ordinarily have been the two busiest weeks of wheat harvest. It was declared 92 percent contained on Monday, July 22, but by that time it had destroyed four homes, damaged four more, and wiped out an estimated two million bushels of wheat, valued at around $12 million.
Also lost in the fire were 48 outbuildings, four industrial buildings, eight commercial vehicles, and an RV.
Even as the chaos from the Substation Fire had died down enough for wheat farmers to resume regular work, a spark from a combine harvester started a grass fire July 26 near Long Hollow Road southeast of Dufur.
The resulting fire burned southeasterly and also jumped the Deschutes River into Sherman County; about three miles of Highway 216 were against the edge of the fire at one point.
The Long Hollow Fire was listed at 75 percent contained and was effectively out by July 30, although mop-up work continued in steep areas of the Deschutes River Canyon, but it burned about 33,451 acres. The Ferry Canyon Homestead, a historic building in Maupin acquired in 1908 by the Hills Ranch for railroad workers, was destroyed.
Firefighters working in the Deschutes canyon were unable to carry enough water for themselves to last for a day, and water stations filled with ice and holding water bottles had to be set up for them.
During the fire, the Salvation Army delivered meals, beverages and hygiene items to fire crews in their base camp at Dufur School.
A few days later, on Aug. 1, the South Valley Fire started southwest of Dufur in an unoccupied shop on a road by the same name. The flames spread rapidly through Ponderosa pine, oak trees, grass, and wheat fields. The fire eventually merged with the Boxcar Fire.
That fire threatened almost 200 structures and caused hundreds of evacuations.
Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill said he had not seen so many aggressive fires in one season throughout his 17 years working in law enforcement.
“Everyone’s getting worn out, but they keep battling on,” he said. “They are all rock stars, in my opinion.”
Magill also praised the work of Wasco and Sherman County farmers, hundreds of whom put wheat harvest on hold and mobilized to save structures and extinguish flames.
“They organize and get right out on the front lines with heavy equipment to cut a fire line that prevents forward movement,” he explained. “Then they go around the back, where it has already burned, and use water tanks on their trucks to put that section of fire out.”
The memorial service for John Ruby, who died fighting the Substation Fire, was held on Aug. 4, a few days after the South Valley Fire started, at the Dufur School. By Aug. 7, evacuation levels had been reduced and firefighters were in the process of mopping up.
Although there were still concerns about potential new flare-ups due to embers carried on the wind, there was no actual resurgence of flames.
Flames did break out early on the afternoon of Aug. 9 in the Precision Lumber building in the industrial park on Crates Way, in The Dalles, and a second fire in the Memaloose area burned close to 170 acres at around the same time. Nonetheless, there were no more major wildfires in the summer of 2018.
But even once a fire is completely extinguished and the firefighters have moved on, those affected still have to deal with the aftermath. For them, the end of a fire is only part of a longer story.
“I broke through the wall of smoke and the house was still standing and there were people everywhere working on the place,” said Dufur Gap Road rancher Mike Filbin of his return from attempting to create a fire break between his home and the South Valley Fire. “It was just unbelievable.”
Mike and his wife, Kitty, were unsure if any of their cattle died in the fire, which was 90 percent contained but still smoldering in spots at the time. Mike was in the process of bringing them all in, about a month earlier than planned.
The federal government authorized emergency grazing on some Conservation Reserve Program land that was unaffected by the fire in early August, and Filbin planned to take advantage of that program for help with some of his nearly 500 pair (cow and calf) of cattle. But he said the use of CRP properties would feed only some livestock and he and other ranchers would probably need more hay to get through the winter.
He expected the price of hay to increase dramatically because of the demand. “I hope that doesn’t happen, but it generally does when there is a situation like this,” he said.
Between 25,000 and 30,000 acres of the federal land the Filbins hold permits to use were damaged by the flames and will be off-limits for the next year or two.
The week of the fire was something of a nightmare, the Filbins said, but also a time of gratitude because of all the help they received.
Mike Filbin said protein blocks were being provided by SweetPro at a drastically discounted price to help affected ranchers get pregnant cows the nutrition they need.
During the fire, farmers from as far away as Antelope, Wamic, and both Sherman and Hood River counties converged on the Filbins’ home, which had been in the family for more than a century, to help with defending it from the flames.
Some of them were in pumper trucks and ringed the property to keep water on the homestead.
“We were surrounded on all sides,” said Mike of the hellish scene.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he added, speaking 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.”