DREWSEY — It’s before dawn Tuesday, but the mosquitoes are already up and biting as Bill Wilber, his two brothers, George and Pat Wilber, and their nephew, Casey Wilber, load four horses into a long aluminum trailer.
Eight days ago, a wildfire — one of five that grew together to form the Buzzard Complex about 45 miles southeast of Burns — raced across the rangeland above the Drewsey Field Ranch, scattering the family herd of about 750 cattle and calves.
“We had lots of lightning, but we also had lots of rain,” Bill Wilber says. “We really didn’t anticipate the intensity of the fires. It just went on and on. There were not enough assets, not enough firefighters to get a handle on it.”
The complex has blackened nearly 400,000 acres of sagebrush and bunchgrass on steep, rocky hillsides, hop-scotching across the high desert in a mosaic. It’s the largest range fire since 2012’s Long Draw fire that burned 557,648 acres in southeastern Oregon.
The Buzzard Complex — named for local landmark Buzzard Butte — spared some areas, but other spots burned so hot and fast that 100-year-old junipers went up like Roman candles, a circular carpet of ash at their base.
The cattle took off — many trapped by the fire and losing their bearings.
The Wilbers set out to find their livestock and inventory the damage. In the days before, they found seven cows and 13 calves that had succumbed to smoke or flames. They had to euthanize two other injured cows.
The men pile into the truck and fifth-wheel trailer and drive about 20 miles across talcum-powder dry roads to the Little Stinkingwater Creek allotment, federal grazing lands controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
They will spend the day on horseback, rounding up “pairs,” as they call them, mother and calf, and herding them to a familiar place along Stinkingwater Creek that hadn’t been burned.
The men have brought pistols and rifles — not for protection, but to put down the calves and cattle that can’t be saved.
“It’s not a pretty sight,” Bill Wilber says. “The calves and cows with smoke inhalation have drool and snot running from their mouths and nose.”
A telltale limp means a cow’s hooves are burned, an injury that few recover from.
Further down the road, Wilber’s cousin, Jack Joyce, along with his son, Chase, bring in a pair from their 300 head to a nearby corral. The mama cow is limping, but her offspring appears to have come through without a scratch.
“We will take her home and try and save her,” Joyce says, as his son, an accomplished horseman at age 12, rounds up the pair and drives both into a trailer. “We’ll see what we can do; I’ve heard that with this kind of injury their hooves can just fall off.”
Last week, Bill Wilber had spotted a hulking black bull — branded with his ranch’s distinctive backward “D” — waiting out the fire beneath an unburned juniper.
When Wilber returns to the same place Tuesday, the bull isn’t alone.
As Wilber drives up in his ATV, the bull is fighting another bull from the herd.
Twisting their haunches and butting heads, they pirouette on a blackened patch of ground, disappearing into a cloud of ash and burnt umber dust.
The clash goes on for about 10 minutes, despite Wilber’s shouts to distract them.
Traveling a few more miles down the road, Wilber parks the ATV, straps on a .223 rifle with scope and begins walking a fence line that separates two allotments.
He strides quickly uphill and over charred and shattered rocks for a mile and more looking for strays.
It’s a way of life and a countryside he loves, he says.
“Take a look around,” he says. “It’s quiet, it’s got great scenery. It’s not very pretty today, but by next spring when this greens up, it’ll be gorgeous. And it’s a great place for cattle …”
But on this day, the news is grim: The Wilbers find 10 more dead cattle and a handful of calves with burned hooves.