Smothering smoke. Burning heat. Charred remains. Wildfires are natural disasters that should never be taken lightly. But how do you prepare for something that you know is going to happen, but are not given the when or where on the timing of the strike? Meet the Oregon Rangeland Fire Protection Association. The group, initially formed in 1964, is made up of Oregon ranchers who have come together to form a volunteer firefighting program that an Oregon Department of Forestry report is calling a grass roots success story.
Silas Skinner, 37, is a rancher from Oregon’s far East corner of Jordan Valley. He is president of the local RFPA and said the idea for the Jordan Valley association started during a fire in 2006. The disaster left many ranchers feeling helpless when it came to protecting their animals, land and local communities. Skinner said sitting back and watching the action didn’t bode well with many from the area. “The main thing was to be able to fight the fire,” he said.
Fast forward to 2015. With the drought the state of Oregon is currently experiencing, no one was shocked when a fire was called in during a lighting storm on June 28th. Phil Obendorf, a young rancher from Wilder, Idaho, caught word that the Jaca Reservoir fire was burning on Oregon land where his cattle were grazing. The first thought that ran through his head was, “save the cows lives.” Obendorf is a member of Oregon’s Jordan Valley RFPA and showed up to fight the fire at 7 p.m. that night, soon after the flames had begun to burn. With over 400 cattle grazing the land the fire was engulfing, Obendorf shuddered to think what the outcome might be.
Vale BLM was first to arrive on the scene and brought around 35 personnel including eight different vehicles/firefighting equipment. RFPA also received word of the fire via a radio system their ranchers carry at all times in case of emergency. Skinner was in the middle of cutting hay when he got the call. He and his wife, brother and brother’s wife all grabbed their equipment and rushed to the scene. Moments after BLM’s arrival, Jordan Valley RFPA had over 40 personnel and 28 pieces of equipment on sight. After conferring with BLM, the two groups split off to cover more ground.
Clint Fillmore, 44, acts as a liaison between Jordan Valley RFPA and Vale BLM. He carries two different radios, one for each group, that allow him to tell one group what area the other is currently covering. “We had three areas going on that fire at one time,” Fillmore said. Every member is required to carry a radio for safety. Larry Moore of Vale BLM said, “Over the last several years there has been outstanding synchronization of operations, specifically radio procedures, which helps to more effectively coordinate cooperative efforts in a seamless way.”
25 year old RFPA member Annie Mackenzie drove over an hour and half to help battle the flames. “When I’m driving out there its nerve racking, but once I’m there it’s down to business,” she said. Mackenzie drove a water tinder, a semi-truck carrying a water tank, and supplied both BLM and RFPA with water as needed. “We’re (BLM and RFPA) definitely working together.”
36 hours elapsed before Skinner resigned himself to taking a break. He reports that during their time, five to six RFPA personnel dedicated themselves to herding cattle out of the fire’s aggressive path, while the rest focused on dousing the flames. By July 1st the fire was controlled and by the 3rd it was contained. During the time it burned the fire consumed 13, 460 acres.
For Obendorf, that meant 12,000 acres of prime cattle grazing was out of commission for the next 2 years. Still, he’s thankful crews were able to save what they did.
“The RFPA is made up of ranchers that know the area which is key in helping fight wildfires,” Obendorf said. While he lost three cows, three calves and one bull in the flames, the RFPA was able to herd 400 of his cattle away from the fire, something government agencies don’t always have enough staffing to accomplish. “The RFPA saved my herd,” Obendorf said.
There are over 14 RFPA groups around Oregon consisting of over 600 volunteer members. While wildfires may seem a distant concern to some of Oregon’s urban areas, they have a direct impact on the state’s budget and in a way burn right through the heart of the capital. Volunteer programs, like the RFPA, help protect Oregon’s rangeland and its finances.
Oregon prides itself in its beautiful landscapes and vibrant variety of wildlife. Fillmore sees that wildfires endanger that beauty in that they are a threat to Oregon communities, wildlife and animals. Why fight fires? “I do it because we have to protect the rangeland and wildlife,” he said.
“You can’t just sit there and hope for the best,” Mackenzie added. “It’s my brothers, my cousins, my neighbors, my friends. If they need one more person out there to watch their back, I want to be that person.”
Being a volunteer Oregon firefighter is a time consuming job. Especially when there are cows to be fed, water troughs to fill, and gates to fix. “It takes time that’s not available,” said Fillmore. “But is it worth it? The answer is yes.”
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association was founded in 1913 and works to promote environmentally and socially sound industry practices, improve and strengthen the economics of the industry, and protect its industry communities and private property rights.
By Kayli Hanley