It has been a wild week for rancher Joe Pechanec.
Pechanec, cow boss for R2 Ranch, runs about 1,400 head of cattle on public and private rangeland in arid central Oregon, where a pair of massive, wind-whipped wildfires have torched more than 100,000 acres and passed mere yards away from his front door.
“Last night, I finally got seven hours of sleep,” Pechanec said Monday. “It’s been a really brutal battle, but I think we’re getting headway.”
The ordeal began early Thursday, June 21, when lightning touched off the Boxcar fire one mile southeast of Maupin along the Deschutes River corridor. Lightning also sparked the Jack Knife fire just 30 miles away near Grass Valley, and together the blazes have combined to burn 114,272 acres of heavy grass, sage and juniper.
Local ranchers, including Pechanec, quickly banded together to protect their homes and livestock, using their own bulldozers and equipment to dig fire breaks and evacuating cattle to safety south of the inferno.
“All the ranches, we took pretty much everything we had,” Pechanec said. “It was really kind of heartfelt.”
Pechanec recalls how the flames approached just 150 yards or so from his home in Willowdale, about 12 miles north of Madras in rural Jefferson County. With help from his neighbors, they dug dozer lines and performed a back burn to hold the fire at bay.
Since the fires started, Pechanec estimated 40-50 volunteers have come from as far as Shaniko and Antelope to lend a hand — most of them local ranchers, friends and families — along with professional firefighters from the Bureau of Land Management.
As of June 26, the Boxcar fire was 60 percent contained and the Jack Knife fire was 80 percent contained. Firefighters expect to have both fires fully contained by July 6.
“We’re looking really good,” Pechanec said. “I think we’re going to be OK.”
The rangeland, however, could take some time recover. Pechanec said the fires have scorched all 12,000 acres of the ranch’s BLM range, along with 2,500 to 3,000 acres of private grassland owned by Robert Pamplin.
Without that land available to graze, Pechanec said he will likely have to turn to the hay pile while doubling the rotation rate for his unburned pastures to avoid overgrazing. Pechanec estimated he may lose up to $30,000 this year on his hay costs, and pastures where he would normally leave cattle for three weeks he will instead rotate after a week and a half.
“Everybody has to be out in the cattle, checking the rangeland and checking the grass,” he said. “You’re just going to have to make sure that stubble doesn’t get down below 2 to 3 inches so we can have regrowth for next year.”
Justin Rodgers, a rangeland management specialist for the BLM in Prineville, said that, in general terms, the agency allows for two years of rest on burned land to allow time for rehabilitation. Staff will work with individual ranchers to accommodate grazing needs and discuss appropriate land management moving forward.
“That’s the big thing there, just getting the land back to pre-fire conditions as best we can,” Rodgers said. “It’s definitely a case-by-case situation. Every range is in different condition before the fire. Each landowner or permittee has different flexibility or livestock grazing operations going on.”
Meanwhile, Pechanec said it has been two months since the last considerable rainfall at the ranch, and conditions remain bone dry.
“We are running tremendously low on water and feed,” he said. “We have no green left.”
Most of central Oregon is listed in moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Central and southern Oregon can expect above-normal potential for additional wildfires heading into July and August, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.