Oregon Gov. Kate Brown visited Sherman County last week and heard from farmers and cattlemen that repairing roads and fences were top issues following the summer’s devastating fires.
Brown also came away with a to-do list of helping to hurry along needed emergency declarations to allow or extend temporary grazing.
She also wants to figure out how the state can provide the most effective assistance, the most rapidly.
“The other piece for me is creating a sense of urgency around next year’s fire season,” Brown said after the meeting.
Fires are becoming more severe and more frequent, she said, and she wants to explore options from controlled burns to changing agricultural practices to studying how to tackle fires differently.
“I think it’s absolutely time to reexamine our state fire policies,” Brown said, “because none of us can afford what happened this summer.”
Cattleman Tom Reitmann lost 3,600 acres of grazing land, but his problems now are replacing 30 miles of fence and repairing roads.
John W. Johnson, of Gilliam County, is in the same boat. He said so many farmers need new fence that finding a contractor is almost impossible. But fences need repairing before cattle can be brought to winter pasture. Some fence he can’t get to because the roads are too damaged.
About 800 miles of fence were destroyed in Wasco County, said Wasco County Commissioner Steve Kramer.
Even if grazing land was untouched, Johnson said, in some cases the private roads leading to them were destroyed when heavy fire equipment deeply rutted the soft dirt.
“We need the roads to get to our hay piles and feeding grounds and water resources,” he said.
He said it will be up to two years before he can turn cattle onto burned areas again.
It takes years to line up road repair program funds, and that was in the hopper for next year, but he needs the work done now, so it will have to be out of pocket. he said. It costs about $20,000 to $30,000 per mile to repair road. He’ll rebuild and hope for some program help to alleviate costs.
Johnson said the Bakeoven fire burned 100,000 acres but got little attention because it didn’t destroy homes or crops. But it destroyed significant grazing ground, he said. “It’s more than grass or shrub, it’s our livelihood.”
He’ll have to reduce his cow numbers because of the shortage of grazing. He will get some help from hay, “but that’s not a fix” because its uneconomical.
Erosion is already a problem, but he worried about even worse erosion if winter brings a freeze, then snow, and then a warm Chinook rain to scour it out.
“We’re looking at catastrophic things that could happen,” he said.
With all the sagebrush and grasses gone, “There’s nothing out here to hold the ground right now.”
He said that allowing cattle to temporarily graze on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands is helpful, “but a lot of CRP has burned.”
Both Wasco and Sherman counties got a disaster approval that allowed grazing on CRP land.
However, they need to be off the land by Sept. 30, said Lissa Biehn, county executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency for Wasco and Hood River counties.
She asked if there was a way to extend it. “Our hands appear to potentially be tied.”
Gilliam County was declared a disaster at the county level last week, but it still requires a final approval before grazing can happen on CRP lands in that county.
Reitmann said fire is actually good to control the buildup of sage, which chokes out grass. “We need to do controlled burning,” he said. He said if more grazing, logging and controlled burning was allowed, “Then we wouldn’t have these catastrophic fires.”
Wheat farmers were quickly given permission to grow cover crops on burned land to stem erosion, and seed growers waived royalty fees for seed, said Jeff Kaser, executive director of the Mid-Columbia Producers Co-op. While cover crops have been approved, rain is what’s needed to get them to grow.
Sherman County wheat farmer Darren Padget jokingly told the governor he’d like it if she could arrange about an inch of rain for the area.
Reitmann said there’s not enough manpower to fight fires anymore. Fifty years ago, he said, you could expect 50 people to show up to a fire within 30 minutes. Now you might get five or six, he said.
Johnson said that farming has become so mechanized that large crews aren’t needed.
Also, people owning CRP land tend to be absentee landowners.
Brian Cranston, a Sherman County farmer, said air support is critical in the first hours of a fire. He said planes were sitting at the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport in Dallesport, “waiting to see who’s going to pay for it.”
He said, “Maybe we could get it right away and not have to call a conflagration. That would be huge.”
Brown said she’s instructed her staff “to do what they need to do and beg for forgiveness later.”
She said, “This is a whole new game; this is a whole new world and we need to have the air resources and the people power to fight this.”
Sherman County Commissioner Joe Dabulskis, who hosted the meeting at his barn-turned-event-center, said one farmer spent a week chisel plowing his burned field, to make dirt clods so it wouldn’t be subject to wind erosion. He went through 500 gallons of diesel.
“I’ve gone out there watching it blow,” he said of dust. “I thought it was fire.”