Kylee VanOrman-Ruby said neighboring farmers did everything they could to save her parents property, but Tuesday’s fire was driven by strong wind gusts that couldn’t be controlled.
“Everyone tried to get ahead of it, but it was everywhere — it was just unbelievable,” she said.
The home that Gary and Debbie VanOrman built 31 years ago on Gary Roberts Market Road was levelled by flames that tore through Wasco County, jumped the Deschutes River and roared into Sherman County.
The Substation Fire has been declared the top emergency priority in the nation at this time.
“Everything is gone, all their collections, their photos,” said VanOrmann-Ruby of her parents’ loss.
“There’ve been so many close calls over the years with other fires but nothing like this.”
Despite the trauma, she said her parents are holding up well. They are determined to rebuild, and a neighbor has offered them use of a nearby house while construction is underway.
“I’m floored by how positive they are,” said VanOrman-Ruby. “They are already making plans and talking to contractors.”
She said there has been an outpouring of support from the community and the family is grateful for the compassion and caring of so many people.
Wasco County Chief Deputy Scott Williams said the Substation Fire is being investigated as “incendiary in nature.” It started about 1:30 on the east side of Highway 197 just south of The Dalles.
The flames fanned out quickly in the wind and raced southeast over ripened wheat fields.
VanOrman-Ruby said she got a call from her husband, Matt Ruby, shortly after the fire started. He shared concerns that, due to the direction of the wind, her parents’ home could lie in the path of advancing flames.
“I called mom and told her to get some stuff together in case they had to leave,” said VanOrman-Ruby.
Within 45 minutes, it became clear the VanOrmans needed to load up their animals and get them to safety at Kylee and Matt’s house on Fifteenmile Road.
By the time that task was accomplished, VanOrman-Ruby said farmers had converged on her parents’ property but the house was quickly engulfed in fast-moving flames.
“We know they tried but there’s nothing more the farmers could have done,” she said.
For some reason, the conflagration left a gasoline tank untouched on the site. Some trees and lilac bushes were also undamaged.
A chicken named “Clucky” the family left behind was found sauntering around the untouched part of the yard the next morning. Two barn cats were missing.
“She’s a scrappy little bird,” said VanOrman-Ruby of the chicken. “We don’t know where she was hiding but she was completely unscathed.”
At one point Tuesday night, the fire also threatened her and Matt’s home and the family had to load up the animals again and flee to safety.
“The flames were like lava coming over that canyon,” said VanOrman-Ruby.
Matt’s father, John Ruby, 64, was killed in the fire but Kylee declined to talk about that tragedy, saying the family needed privacy to process the loss.
The sheriff’s office issued a press release about Ruby’s death Wednesday. That notice said it appeared from the investigation that he was working to create a fire line to protect his neighbor’s property when he was overcome by fire.
Williams said the heroism of that night was amazing because farmers put themselves in harm’s way over and over again to help others.
While he was on patrol, trees were burning and falling across roadways and power poles were going down, cutting the power to irrigation pumps when water was needed to fight flames.
“It was so fast you couldn’t outrun it. The wind was just howling,” said Williams, who estimates the gusts at 35 miles per hour.
He and Sheriff Detective Sgt. Jeff Hall were in the area to warn landowners that they needed to evacuate. The two deputies ended up grabbing shovels to throw dirt on flames that threatened the Wrentham Market Road home of Austin Bowen and his family.
“It was a major pucker factor,” said Bowen of the danger.
He had gotten off work at 3:30 p.m. and picked up his daughter from daycare. After hearing news about the fire, he decided to leave her with her grandparents in town and check out what the situation was at home.
The flames were still off in the distance, so he figured there was time to round up animals and get things together if necessary — but suddenly the fire swept over the hill in front of the house.
Bowen scrambled to load dogs and horses and get them to a nearby property. Then he headed back home to find that six pickups of farmers had arrived and were already at work building a fire break to stop advancement of the flames.
“The fire was everywhere and then out of the flames came a farmer riding on a tractor,” recalls Williams.
Bowen said there was so much smoke that it was difficult to see what was going on around him. At the end of the night, he had lost a cat, some firewood and a cache of hay.
Three barns and two sheds on the property he rents were destroyed. But the house and all the family’s belongings were intact. They had no power Thursday and were camping out but not complaining about the inconvenience in light of what could have happened.
“It was crazy,” Bowen said.
Williams said Wasco Electric Co-op workers are also to be commended for scrambling to replace 80 burned power poles in the Fifteenmile area as quickly as it was safe to be on site. That work will continue 24/7 until power is completely restored, according to the company.
On Thursday, Williams was patrolling the area to deliver sack lunches put together by office staff at the sheriff’s office to farmers and firefighters who were busy mopping up hot spots.
Once Gov. Kate Brown declared the Substation Fire a conflagration on Wednesday, outside help began to arrive. By Friday, there were nearly 300 firefighters at work from 73 different agencies across Oregon and Southwest Washington.
“It’s neighbors helping neighbors,” said a Woodburn firefighter who would identify himself only as “Rob.” He said it was prohibited by policy for him to speak independently to the media.
His team was part of a taskforce that responds to large-scale emergencies across the state. Their job was to keep a 3,000-gallon tanker filled with water pumped from Fifteenmile Creek so that farmers could refill water bladders being used to douse hot spots.
Williams said the concern of emergency responders is that the embers left behind in trees, stumps and other woody debris will re-ignite and send flames through vegetated draws to light up areas that have, so far, been left untouched.
Charred fields and blackened fence posts fill the line of sight in the fire zone and dust clouds swirl in the breeze, sometimes thick enough to cut off visibility for drivers.
Next to the carnage are hundreds of acres of wheat fields that remain pristine and ready for harvest.
“The fire just went where the wind took it,” said Williams.
By the time the sun rose Wednesday morning, Sherman County had become the danger zone with high winds churning up flames and sending them racing across wheat fields.
Grass Valley farmer Alan von Borstel was working on a fire break to save his cousin’s crop off Sayer’s Road when the hydraulic line on his tractor blew and the fluid immediately caught fire.
“I just opened the door and leaped out,” he said. “I’ve been farming for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
He said the wind whipped up “fire devils” between 10 and 30 feet high. It was impossible to get in front of the fire because it was moving so fast.
“It took four hours for that fire to get from The Dalles to Sherman County,” he said. “The next thing we knew it was on us.”
To date, the fire has claimed more than 70,000 acres in Wasco and Sherman counties. On Friday morning, it was about 15 percent contained.
Von Borstel said, when an emergency like that occurs, every farmer, whether they like each other or not, helps his neighbor.
He said the ash and dust were so thick Tuesday night when everyone was manning the line, that it was difficult to keep track of your direction.
“We were 100 feet part and we couldn’t see each other,” he said.
“We wanted to get the fire stopped before it got to a structure.”
Von Borstel ended up with some wiring damage and melted plastic on his tractor, which was minimal damage given that other farmers lost equipment to the flames.
The loss of machinery will hurt most farmers more than the loss of wheat, said von Borstel. He said crops are insured at whatever value the farmer sets so most will not suffer undue financial harm.
However, von Borstel said equipment is insured only at its existing value and not the cost of replacement.
So, the farmer will be out money if it is destroyed.
His cousin ended up losing 700 acres of wheat, said von Borstel, who had to turn his eyes to his own homestead when the fire moved within three miles of his property on Thursday morning.
He planned to create a fire break around his home if necessary and then start a back burn to keep the flames away.
“We would be harvesting if we weren’t fighting fire,” he said. “Everyone’s just shut down to get this fire out.”
As of press time Friday, 900 homes in Sherman County remain under a Level 2 — get ready to go — or Level 3 — go now — evacuation status.
An account has been set up at Columbia State Bank to assist the Ruby and VanOrman families. People can make donations at any branch under account #11028327349.