By Mitchell Willetts
The fire kept trying to get away from Clint Fillmore and the other ranchers.
The Cherry Road Fire of 2016 burned almost 31,000 acres and it would’ve taken more had they not caught it.
A fire that big, you just can’t bring enough water to put it out, Fillmore said. The best tactic is to burn where it’s going before it gets there.
Fillmore is chief of the Jordan Valley Rangeland Protection Association, one of the area’s volunteer agencies trained and equipped to tackle fires in some of the remotest areas of Oregon.
With a new fire season here, the ranchers and others who volunteer for their protection associations are ready to roll. They often join forces with paid firefighters from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, as happened on that 2016 man-caused fire, east of the Owyhee Reservoir.
Marvin Vetter, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s rangeland association coordinator, said that as wildfires have grown bigger and hotter over the years, volunteer forces have become a necessity.
“They bring a lot of equipment, a lot of people, and a lot of knowledge of the land,” Vetter said.
The tiny community of Ironside was first to create a rangeland fire protection association. Created in 1964, the association was formed through the state forestry agency, giving access to state training, equipment, and money.
The associations formalized what before was a loose affiliation of landowners acting independently of government agencies. They operate like volunteer fire departments, acting alone or supplementing other forces. Oregon now has 22 such associations.
The crews from the Jordan Valley association, which covers 2.5 million acres, were on the Cherry Creek fire for two days.
“There was no resting. We were just going at it,” Fillmore said. “When you’re looking at your livelihood, it keeps you pretty focused.”
The fire made a break.
“We had a finger running on us and had we lost that, it would have burned, I can’t even tell you how many more acres,” Fillmore said.
Working side by side with the BLM firefighters, Jordan Valley crews trapped the fire.
Fillmore said there’s just no way to corral a big fire without that sort of cooperation.
“The fires weren’t as big 30 years ago as they are today,” Fillmore said. “Federal agencies have aircraft and everything else and we have no access to that. We can’t do it without them. We can’t do it without each other.”
As a Jordan Valley rancher, he and his neighbors often are the first responders to wildfires, with a very personal stake to see they get put out quickly.
“No matter where there’s a fire, pretty much, I go,” Fillmore said. “If I go help everybody else fight their fire, they turn around and come help me fight mine.”
They can’t wait for state or federal resources to arrive, Fillmore said. Wildfires don’t distinguish between federal and private land.
The BLM operates outposts at Jordan Valley and Burns Junction.
Still, desert terrain makes for slow going, and the federal firefighters, though better trained, are frequently less familiar with the territory than the locals.
Local ranchers and the federal forces at one time shared the desire to stop fire but rarely cooperated.
“Used to be, you’d go out there, they’d go do their thing. They wouldn’t come talk to you,” Fillmore said. “The whole deal was they didn’t like us, and we didn’t like them.”
Fillmore is fuzzy on the details, but remembers during the Happy Valley fire in 2006, the relationship got ugly.
“The county sheriff came out,” he said. “They were going to haul us off to jail because we were out there trying to put the fire out.”
The disagreement ended with big meeting in Vale before the county judge.
“They were going to kick us off, and we felt we had the right to protect our grasses,” Fillmore said.
Following that meeting, an agreement was reached, and the Jordan Valley Rangeland Fire Protection Association was established in 2007.
“Today we work pretty darn good together,” he said.
Now whenever a fire pops up in the Jordan Valley area, the association command group is in consistent contact with the BLM incident commander via radio. If the situation continues to escalate, communications go higher in the chain of command with the BLM feeding the association crews the same info they are giving their own, such as forecasts and more.
These days, there is no dispute between government agencies and associations over who gets to fight what fires where. What matters is who gets there first.
Vetter helps the associations get established and arranges training and equipment.
“They have more engines, and dozers and water tenders out in the desert than the federal government does in all of Oregon,” Vetter said.
The state agency helps foot the bill to a degree, and Vetter is often able to supply associations with surplus military vehicles, such as HUMVEEs and bulldozers. Vetter estimates that most of the more than 200 fire engines available to associations are privately owned.
In all they cover 14.5 million acres in eastern Oregon.
“I’ve put so much time and money into it out of my pocket, it’s not even funny,” Fillmore said.
His association has five water tenders, 11 type-4 fire engines that are six-wheeled and capable of hauling 1,000 gallons of water, three bulldozers, and 24 slip-in units — water containers that can be installed on nearly any flatbed truck.
In 2016, the rangeland associations responded to 147 fires.
“A lot of federal fire crews are usually new kids coming out of college or out of high school and kind of new to the area,” said Vetter. “The ranchers work on this ground all the time and know the topography and the fuels better than the government does.”
Jordan Valley is one of five associations in Malheur County. Others are Ironside, Juntura, Vale, and Blue Mountain, based in McDermitt. They cover six million acres that is sparsely populated and largely untamed by roads. Fillmore had been fighting fire long before the need arose to join an official firefighting entity. He has the know-how and experience of generations in him. It’s just been a part of ranch life forever, he said.
A good thing too because he expects this fire season to be serious. The winter was particularly wet, but he doubts that will mean much in the coming weeks and months.
“The fire season might be a little shorter, but it’s going to be pretty intense when it goes,” Fillmore said. “The fuel load is more than it has been for the last couple of years.”
With the BLM at his back, he feels more confident than he has in the past.
“We are as prepared as we can be,” Fillmore said. “Mother nature controls that. If she decides to bring a 30 mile-an-hour wind for you, you’re not prepared.”
News tip? Contact reporter Mitchell Willetts at 541-473-3377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.