Drought in southeast Oregon is making firefighters nervous

The Associated Press /

ONTARIO — The southeast corner of Oregon has entered summer in a deep drought, making firefighters nervous, and already hurting ranchers and farmers.

So far this year, Gov. John Kitzhaber has issued drought declarations for four Oregon counties, three of them on Tuesday.

One of them is for Malheur, which at 9,928 square miles is the second-largest county in the state and slightly larger than Vermont. Its high desert makes up the southeast corner of the state, bordering Idaho and Nevada.

Ranchers report selling cattle because pastures are brown and feed prices high. Rivers are low. Irrigation reservoirs started the season at one-third of their capacity, and some irrigation districts have already run out of water, The Oregonian reported.

“We didn’t get any rain last fall, and really none to speak of this spring, and we didn’t get enough snowpack to fill our reservoirs,” said Ron Jacobs, a watermaster with the Oregon Water Resources Department.

He said it’s the driest time he recalls in 31 years. He worked for the Vale Irrigation District before taking a state job.

Rancher Bob Skinner is gearing up to truck water to his cattle, which is “something we don’t do much.”

“We are all selling cattle,” said Skinner. “Hay is high and grain is ridiculously high and you can’t find pasture, so what do you do?”

Malheur County has 186,000 acres of irrigated farmland, mostly in the sprawling Western Treasure Valley. It is famous for onions, potatoes and sugar beets, producing an annual value at the farm gate of $200 million.

The months ahead are shaping up to be another potentially dangerous wildfire season, say officials of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Unusually early range fires last week have already burned about 33 square miles, they said.

“Everybody is watching the weather, whether you’re a rancher or firefighter or whatever, to see how it’s going to spin out,” said BLM spokesman Mark Wilkening of Vale.

Three lightning-caused wildfires last summer burned more than 1,500 square miles, or about 1 million acres, in Malheur County and adjoining Harney County.

The biggest was the 871-square-mile Long Draw Fire.