BEAR VALLEY - The costs to taxpayers for this fire season are accruing by the day - $5.4 million and counting on the Monument Fire; more than $2.4 million for the Flagtail Fire; $6.2 million and counting for the Malheur Complex; $1.4 million and counting for the 747 Fire.
But behind the heavy pall of smoke hanging over public lands in Eastern Oregon lie charred fences, burnt private-lands timber and devastated grazing allotments. Forest fires destroyed public lands, but they also inflicted a high cost to private landowners.
"My concern is now that it's happened, what are we going to do?" wondered John Peek, general manager of ranches for D.R. Johnson Lumber Co. Peek estimated that 90 percent of the ranch's federal grazing allotment burned.
Ranch crews scrambled to round up cattle from the Bear Valley Ranger District as the 8,175-acre Flagtail Fire built momentum. Roughly 5,000 acres of allotment burned, Peek estimated. About 200 cattle now graze on ranch land rather than on the Forest Service allotment, which continues to smolder from the high-intensity fire.
Flagtail erupted from a lightning strike in heavy timber.
"In no time, it was blazing," Peek recalled. "We got a call from the Forest Service telling us there was a fire. ... It was in an area with tremendous ground fuels. It was really thick in there."
The incident intelligence summary for Flagtail, a fire now considered 95 percent contained, stated that "heavy dead and down, mixed conifer, ponderosa pine and curing grasses" constituted the fuels.
As a result of these fuels, Bald Mountain Allotment turned into a moonscape dotted with black tree trunks. The fire crept onto about 200 acres of Johnson's private timberland, but Peek said past management on private ground helped temper the damage.
"The fire stayed on the floor and moved fast," Peek said, pointing out the difference between the heavily scorched and lightly burned areas during a July 24 tour of the ranch boundary. "It ran out of fuel right away. It didn't create the heat to scorch the trees."
Peek and timberland specialist Renee Baker praised the firefighters for their hard work. They also sympathized with federal land managers who, they said, face regulatory hurdles to remove ground fuels.
"State forestry and the Forest Service are doing everything they can, but the fires are not burning (with catastrophic intensity) on private lands because (those lands are) managed," Baker said.
Gordon Foster, John Day Unit forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, estimated that the Flagtail Fire burned onto 500 acres of private land; the 747 Fire, at nearly 11,000 acres, also crept onto about 500 acres of private land; and the Roberts Creek Fire, burning within the 13,000-acre-and-growing Malheur Complex, touched on 800 acres of private land (all owned by Johnson), with more losses expected pending containment.
The Easy Fire near Dixie Summit on the Malheur National Forest was not expected to burn private land, and the 24,700-acre Monument Fire near Unity, now being battled by U.S. Army troops, was 40 percent contained on July 26 as it burned in the Monument Rock Wilderness Area.
Steve Courtney, operations forester for Malheur Lumber Co., said the company lost about 80 acres of trees on the Gander Ranch and about 60 acres of Bench property, both due to the Flagtail Fire. About 200,000 board feet of timber volume was lost, according to his preliminary estimates.
He agreed that managed private property more readily resisted the impacts of fire.
"If you get out there on the property line, you can see where the fire left the thick stuff and hit the managed land," he said.
About a half a mile of fenceline also burned, Courtney estimated. State fire crews helped contain the blaze by providing engines to hold a fire line.