Ore. Wildfires Leave Ranchers Without Grazing Land

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Two giant wildfires burning in eastern Oregon have finally been contained. Although few people live in the affected area, cattle ranchers have seen hundreds of their livestock burned to death. The fire has an economic impact on the ranchers not only because of the lost livestock but also because these ranchers grazed their cows on federal land. And federal rules say that after a burn, land needs to go ungrazed for at least two years.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Two giant wildfires in eastern Oregon have killed hundreds of cattle and jeopardized ranchers' livelihoods. The fires have burned more than 1,000 square miles of sagebrush and juniper and that leaves ranchers with nowhere to graze the cattle they managed to save.

That's a problem in a town called Burns, as we hear from Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

AMELIA TEMPLETON, BYLINE: The night the fires started, a thunderstorm passed over the Trout Creek Mountains. Lightning ignited the dry grass. Richard and Jeanette Yturriondobeitia own a ranch at the foot of the mountain.

RICHARD YTURRIONDOBEITIA: We could see smoke, so we went that direction and the fire came to meet us. It looked like hell or what you would imagine hell would look like.

TEMPLETON: Swift winds from the thunderstorm blew the fire west toward the ranch, so Richard, his wife and daughter and a few close friends saddled their horses and began rounding up cattle as the fire raced toward them.

YTURRIONDOBEITIA: Cows are not afraid of fire. They just go where they normally go and so you have to get them to move.

TEMPLETON: The wind kept switching directions. The fire trapped the animals and killed more than 130 cows and calves and one bull.

YTURRIONDOBEITIA: They're my cows. I just couldn't help them. That's the part that gets me.

JEANETTE YTURRIONDOBEITIA: We've never experienced anything like this. I've never seen this.

TEMPLETON: That's Richard's wife, Jeanette.

YTURRIONDOBEITIA: And people say to us that we'll lose more if their feet are burned or their bags are burned, their udders. They don't have a chance.

TEMPLETON: This ranch is a cow calf operation. It has a permanent herd of mother cows and sells calves every year for beef. The family estimates it has lost a third of the herd.

YTURRIONDOBEITIA: Eighty-five of the mothers have died. That's - you know, that's like our bank account.

TEMPLETON: Worth about $200,000. Today the focus is on bringing water and food to the cows and calves that remain.

YTURRIONDOBEITIA: Come on, Hannah. Come on, Ruby.

TEMPLETON: Jeanette fills a trough with grain for the older calves and feeds two younger calves formula from a bottle.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALF DRINKING FROM BOTTLE)

TEMPLETON: Jeanette and Richard are one of dozens of ranch families that have experienced losses from the fires in eastern Oregon. Ranchers were counting on the land that burned to feed tens of thousands of cattle until winter. Now, it's blackened. In this arid landscape, it can take 30 acres of sagebrush and grasses to feed a single cow for a month.

DON GONZALES: The ranchers will probably be looking pretty hard to find places where they can graze.

TEMPLETON: That's Don Gonzales. He's with the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the land in Eastern Oregon is federally owned. Ranchers lease from the BLM. Gonzales says it will take two years to recover from the fire, for the grasses to grow back. Grazing is off limits during that whole time.

GONZALES: There are some areas that's got sage, which is good to regenerate it, but then there's some areas where there's not even a thumb sticking up out of the ground where it cooked it pretty hot.

TEMPLETON: The governor of Oregon has declared a state of emergency for the region, which opens the door for federal aid, but rancher Richard Yturriondobeitia isn't waiting for that money. He's searching for a new piece of grasslands to lease south of where the fire burned. He wants to keep his herd together.

YTURRIONDOBEITIA: We'll find something. I think we have enough feed for this year, so we don't have to just panic and sell, but I don't know.

TEMPLETON: It's still early in the summer, he says, and the forecast calls for more dry lightning. Soon, that land to the south could be on fire, too.

For NPR News, I'm Amelia Templeton in Burns, Oregon.

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