Fire earns respect in Eastern Oregon
Over in the Blue Mountains, when summer thunderstorms moved into the high mountains in late afternoon and the winds sucked the last vestiges of moisture from Eastern Oregon land, worry about wildfires was on every rancher’s mind.
Grant County’s average annual rainfall was slightly more than 14 inches. That had to last all year. Winter rains and mountain snowpack on the far side of the Cascades supplied moisture for agriculture and cattle. When they were in scant supply, it was bad news.
In summer, hot weather’s lightning storms also were bad news. They presaged lightning strikes that in the blink of an eye started blazes that reveled in our dry needlegrass, sagebrush and undergrowth.
Afternoon winds were another enemy. They dried the clothes washed by the rancher’s wife almost before she could get them fastened on the line with clothespins. The winds stole from the wheat fields the moisture needed to plump out the heads of grain. They dried up the springs that watered cattle. They seared the land. They heightened fire danger. And we had scant protection against fire.
Monument’s “fire department” consisted of our party-line phone universal ring — six shorts. That ring immediately brought all within hearing to the phone, to learn perhaps of the grass fire on the road to Kimberly near Hick’s grain field.
At Murd and Mattie Stubblefield’s ranch, Mattie hears the ring. She hurries to the phone, learns of that fire, rushes out to the field where Murd is hauling hay. Murd stops hay hauling and becomes a firefighter.
For a time, the lookout at Monument Mountain was manned and that offered some protection against fire. From that high vantage point a considerable amount of Blue Mountain countryside was visible. Fires started by lightning strikes could quickly be reported as to size and location.
For ranchers whose land was bisected or bordered by the John Day River, it was an important ally. Our Wall Creek, Cabin Creek and Board Creek often dried up in hot summers, but not the John Day. By late summer it might be tired and its swimming hole scarcely useable by us kids, who spent every summer afternoon there, but always our river had water for cattle and probably for the ranchers who irrigated crops..
Our wildfires were not selective in what they burned. They burned grasslands, haystacks, timber, outbuildings, fences, homes.
One year, my brother Jack and his wife were ordered by the Grant County sheriff to evacuate their home on top when it was threatened by fire. They fled in their pickup, taking only important records and papers. Not until a day or two later did they learn that their house had not burned, but the fire had come so close that marshmallows could have been toasted from the porch.
Much of our ranch was bordered by BLM land that had considerable stands of timber. Once a fire started, it knew no property lines. The John Day River has more miles of Wild and Scenic designated area than any other river in the U.S., and 60 percent of the land is publicly owned. As a rancher, you’re a bit lonely up in those digs if wildfires start to move in.
Kids in Eastern Oregon began learning respect for fire early. We knew how to put out a campfire — so it stayed out. Any kid who smoked and tossed away a match or cigarette before it was totally extinguished did that only once. They learned that matches and smokes were “ground out.” Cowboy boots were great for that. We were careful not to tip over the kerosene lamps. We did not have fireworks on the Fourth of July.
I thought, when I was growing up, that I had learned all lessons about fire prevention on a ranch. But as an adult, I learned another. One summer, Homer and I camped at the old deserted ranch house. My brother, Jack, whose ranch is nearby, stopped to see if we’d like to ride with him the next day to the Elder place where, during the summer, he took cattle to graze. A spring was their only water supply and during hot weather Jack routinely checked to make sure the cattle still had sufficient water.
There was no road to the Elder place, a half section of land, not contiguous to the main ranch, in the foothills of Johnny Cake Mountain. Homer and I hadn’t been up there for years and we jumped at the chance to go. Jack grinned and added that we’d leave in his four-wheel drive long before daybreak, despite the present long daylight hours.
In years past, Jack usually made this trip by horseback, but it was a long, tiring ride that took most of a day, and resourceful Jack apparently had spent considerable time mapping that countryside and found a route that he could drive with his four-wheel vehicle across shale, sagebrush, rabbitbrush, downed limbs, whatever he crossed. We left in what seemed the dead of night, and took off on Jack’s improvised road. I was in the back of the rig holding on with both hands to keep from being ejected.
But there was good reason for this “night” trip. Jack made the drive before the sun came up and could dry out any overnight dew or dampness. That moisture would lessen fire danger that the exhaust or motor or heat from the vehicle might start in the dead grass.
At the Elder place all was well — still enough water for the cattle. As we stood there on top of the world and looked at the panoramic Blues and neverending canyons, draws, plateaus, Jack said, “This is one heck of a place to graze cattle in the summer. A couple of times we’ve had to take cattle out because of approaching fires — and that’s no easy job. Ride up here on horseback, try to drive a bunch of scared cattle out to safety. Once we even had to drive them through a bit of the burn — and they wanted no part of that.”
That night at the old ranch house, Homer and I cautiously built a small campfire when the evening became chilly. When we crawled in our sleeping bags, that fire was so thoroughly out we could have walked through the fire bed with bare feet.
We kids, growing up in Eastern Oregon, perhaps did not learn much about culture — about operas and concerts which little Monument did not offer — but, oh, the inestimable knowledge we learned with respect to fire.
Elaine Rohse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.