It all started with a few low rumbles, followed by one loud boom.
Tom Buce was in the hangar at Lands Inn, where his family operates a bed-and-breakfast and small airport, when he heard the crash of lighting that started the Sugarloaf Fire on June 27 near Dayville.
Within an hour, the blaze would consume 100 acres just a half-mile from Lands Inn. Then the wind shifted, pushing a 30-foot wall of flames directly toward Buce’s home.
“You basically go from fire plan to panic,” Buce said of the inferno that ran over his land. “I just did what I could do and the rest was in God’s hands.”
The Sugarloaf Fire ultimately ripped through 5,000 acres and marked an explosive beginning to wildfire season in Eastern Oregon and Grant County — which has also seen the 27,000-acre Corner Creek Fire continue to burn out of control approximately 11 miles south of Dayville.
Lightning strikes were responsible for both fires, coupled with intense heat and drought that has left the region essentially a tinderbox now into summer.
Lands Inn was first in line to face the Sugarloaf Fire as it raced toward private property up Dick Creek Road just outside the rural community of Kimberly. Buce recalls how quickly the flames ate up grass and juniper trees while bearing down on their own house and rental cabins.
Without much time to act, Buce evacuated all guests at the inn while he stayed behind to assist firefighters responding from the Bureau of Land Management. They set up sprinklers in strategic locations and did back burning of dried grasses to protect structures.
The fire did destroy two storage trailers and charred every last acre of Buce’s land to a blackened crisp, but with the help of the BLM they were able to save his home and business.
“It was so close,” he said. “It happened so fast, and it was so big. You look back and just wonder how did it not burn the house.”
Aundrea Larson, her husband Chris, and two children were among those staying at Lands Inn when the fire started. The family, along with Aundrea’s parents, are building a cabin farther up Dick Creek Road as an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Larson said they had just finished cooling off in the John Day River and went to Dayville for ice cream when they saw smoke coming off Sugarloaf Mountain.
“We got that sinking feeling,” she said. “We knew it was close. Unfortunately, our worst fears were confirmed.”
Larson said they came back as quickly as they could up the winding dirt road with just enough time to gather their things and warn a few more neighbors. They spent the night in John Day, and didn’t sleep a wink.
“At first, you’re just worried about everybody’s place burning down,” she said. “We, really truly, had a lot less to lose. People up there have houses and cabins. You just feel for them.”
The response from the neighbors was remarkable, Larson said. With extensive knowledge of the area, Buce was able to draw a map for firefighters. Craig Merkord, who also lives nearby, stayed up all night doing burn backs and directing firefighters.
A portion of the Sugarloaf Fire also burned about 55 acres onto the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Then, just a few days later, a second fire began in the park around the Blue Basin Overlook Trail that burned up fencing, part of a retaining wall and threatened an historic home.
Several power poles were also damaged, knocking out power to the entire Sheep Rock Unit.
The Blue Basin Fire is under investigation as possibly human-caused. Mike Rubin, chief of facility management for the park, fighting fire in the park can be tricky because they try not to use bulldozers or fire retardant that could damage fossils.
Fire is fairly common at the park, he said, especially given the current drought conditions.
“The big thing to keep in mind is just to pay attention to the fire danger levels and plan accordingly,” Rubin said.
With the Sugarloaf Fire now contained, the big emphasis is on Corner Creek Fire — by far the largest right now in Oregon. That blaze has already destroyed one hunting cabin and crept up on local ranches.
Brian Ballou, fire information officer with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the fire is just 15 percent contained though conditions have improved, which should help firefighters.
“It’s sure looking a lot better now than it did last Friday,” Ballou said.
Larson said the community is thankful for the hard work of the firefighters to keep everyone safe.
“I can guarantee you there was a lot of praying going on,” she said. “There were no lives lost and nobody’s home lost. We have a lot to be thankful for.”
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4547.