Letters from the West

Owyhee County ranchers hit hard by Soda Fire

The Soda Fire was being fanned by 45 mph winds Friday, giving the families who live off the Owyhee County land more fits as they tried to get their cattle and horses to safety.

Thousands of head of cattle are grazed in the area north and east of Jordan Valley, Ore., south to Silver City and north to Givens Hot Springs along Idaho 78. Bureau of Land Management officials could not estimate how many head have been killed in the fire, which began Monday. But the rapid runs Wednesday and increased fire activity Thursday night likely killed both livestock and wildlife.

Fire and BLM officials were helping ranchers open gates to allow the animals to escape the fire Thursday. Twenty ranchers were moving 500 head away from the fire and down Squaw Creek on Friday afternoon, BLM officials said.

Ranchers were gathering any livestock they found in corrals in the mountains until they have feed and enough to haul.

“We’re not sorting them or anything,” said Kate Blackstock.

She had been up since 3 a.m. to fighting the fire after it had made a nighttime run up to the edge of their fence near the family home. Then she had spend the day in the mountains on horseback.

“It has been devastating to watch the Soda Fire take over parts of Owyhee County throughout the past two days,” said Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a lifelong rancher. “Idaho families are doing all they can to protect their homes, their livestock and their livelihoods as this massive fire only continues to grow.”

Little toured the area Saturday, visiting the ranch of Ed and Debbie Wilsey, who lost everything but their house and their cows. All of their outbuildings and this year’s supply of hay was burned.

And the ranchers are out on the range and hard to reach, said Wyatt Prescott of the Idaho Cattle Association. But many Homedale and Canyon County ranchers and farmers have offered temporary pasturing, and veterinarians have offered their services as well.

“We Idahoans are known for stepping up and helping each other during tough times,” Little said. “I have observed this happening as people continue to offer the families at the forefront water and food, along with a place to shelter their animals.”

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

Many of the ranchers in the 414-square-mile fire area have faced a long legal struggle that has reduced the number of cattle they are allowed to graze on public land. Cleo Shaw, a Caldwell rancher whose family sells bulls to many of the families affected, said the fire is just the latest in a line of setbacks.

“Some of these ranches are third-, fourth- and fifth-generation strong — ranches paid for with a lot of long, hard hours and more sweat equity than most of us can fathom,” Shaw said. “A lot of them have had their allotments cut as much as half in the last two to five years.”

Like many ranchers, Shaw says these cutbacks have left more fuel on the range to carry the fire and allow it to burn hotter.

“The range that is burning hasn’t been harvested the way it could or should have been,” she said.

The BLM issued new environmental rules on 68 grazing allotments in Owyhee County in 2013. Ranchers appealed all of them, and only one allotment’s grazing reductions have gone into place, said Jeff Foss, BLM deputy state director for resources.

Foss said the extreme dryness and high winds, along with the unusually high grass caused by spring rains, are responsible.

“These extreme conditions in our opinion overwhelm the effects of livestock grazing,” he said.

Foss acknowledged that grazing can be used to effectively reduce fuels, especially when targeted at invasive grasses and along fuel breaks.

“We have a lot of sympathy for these families and we’ll be working with them in the future,” said Don Smurthwaite, acting BLM deputy state director for communications.