An unknown number of livestock was lost in the 283,000 acre fire on the border of eastern Oregon and Western Idaho. Local ranchers say BLM permits have been cut in half in some cases. That combined with the wet spring produced excessive fuel for August grassfire that has now been contained. Photo by Madeleine M. Hall

Soda Fire Morning Update

Aug. 18, 2015

Current Situation: Firefighters have worked diligently and containment has reached 90 percent.

As the Soda Fire nears 100 percent containment, a federal Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team is being convened to begin field work as early as Wednesday. The BAER Team of natural resource specialists will assess damage and design emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatments for BLM lands. This assessment focuses on mitigating threats to life, property, and resources within the burned area over the next 3 years.

The Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team said it would transition the Soda Fire to a local BLM Type 3 Team at 6 a.m., Aug. 19, 2015.

Public Safety: Owyhee County Sheriff’s office reminds the community that road closures remain in effect for Rabbit Creek Road, Reynolds Creek Road, and Silver Creek Road on the Owyhee Front. Local property owner access is being allowed. We continue to ask that recreationists find alternative locations to recreate as fire suppression and rehabilitation activities continue and until the fire is contained, for public safety

Fire Statistics:

Location: 8 miles northeast of Jordan Valley, OR Start Date: August 10, 2015

Size: 283,686 acres Percent Contained: 90 percent

Total Personnel: 702 Cause: Undetermined

Resources Include: 5 helicopters, 26 engines, 13 crews, 9 water tenders, and 8 dozers.

Late August isn’t the best time to be trying to find pasture for 2,200 head of cattle. But that’s what 15 ranching families in Idaho are facing, and the situation even more will be in before the fire season is over.

“It was just a crazy fire,” said Mary Blackstock, who ranches with her husband Tom on the fifth generation Blackstock ranch. Their ranch was part of the 300,000 acres burned by the Soda Fire, near the border between Oregon and Idaho. “It would go one way and then another direction. You’d think you’d have it out and it would swirl and come back at you again.”

The first two days of the fire they didn’t have any backup support in their area. They had taken a class in fighting wildland fire offered by the BLM, and she was thankful for that information. “We didn’t have any lives lost. There were a couple questionable spots, but we were glad we took that course,” she said. “With the distance out here, we’re the first ones on scene, before BLM or anybody can get here.”

The fire approached their ranch headquarters at 2 a.m. “We got an abrupt wakeup call and headed up the road to the field with a disc and spray rigs. We got it stopped. It helped that we had grazed out the lot coming down into the ranch.”

They had worked to save one good-sized meadow, but the fire crept around the top of the mountain and created a whirlwind. “The whole meadow just exploded. The fire blew up over the cabins and the cars. A couple had to run for the black. One had to lay down on the driveway while the flames blew over. The whole meadow was gone in about 18 minutes,” Blackstock said.

There has been some speculation about whether the BLM’s management of the rangeland, which cuts AUMs in dry years, but doesn’t increase them in wet years, helped fuel the fire. Some contend that with less grass to burn, the fire would have been easier to stop, but the BLM says the severity of the fire season this year is because of the hot temperatures, low humidity and high winds.

Blackstock said she doesn’t know what their losses are as far as cattle, but their summer, fall and winter pastures are all smoldering black.

“There’s nothing left up there. No grass, not really anything for the deer or wildlife or anything,” she said.

When they knew the fire was coming through they cut fences and threw open gates, so now they’re facing the task of sorting through the surviving cattle and trying to inventory the dead ones. With 2,200 cattle being run on BLM allotments, state ground and private ground in the area, it’s no small task.

The Blackwells know that between themselves and a neighbor who shared an allotment they lost 23 head, but some are burned past identification, so they’re counting on inventorying the survivors to figure out to whom the cattle belonged.

Blackstock said one neighbor lost 70 head.

Helicopter surveillance identified many cattle still at large, and a herd of wild horses that will probably be brought into captivity so they will have food and water.

As exhausting and discouraging as it is to fight a fire, the bigger task may be finding feed for the displaced cattle.

They gathered their cattle at a neighbor’s pond and spent three days rebuilding corrals. They’ll continue to gather and sort cattle as they show up, but Blackstock figures it will be at least two weeks before they can get an accurate picture of the state of their cow herd.

In the meantime, they’re thankful they’ve got hay and for the help of friends, neighbors and strangers.

“People have been wonderful, just bringing food and water, Gatorade—there are pallet-loads they’ve dropped off at the Extension office. Everybody’s been offering to help—haul cattle. We’d be gathering areas and people driving by would stop and say they want to help and offer us pop. It’s been pretty nice to have the support of the community and surrounding neighbors.”

Major fires continue to burn in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Washington.

The Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association is coordinating donations to the ranchers affected by the Soda Fire. A fund has been set up at all U.S. Bank branches for anyone who would like to make a monetary donation.