FREMONT-WINEMA NATIONAL FOREST — The Bootleg Fire, the nation’s largest wildfire, has devastated farm communities in Klamath and Lake counties.
The fire had burned more than 394,000 acres as of Wednesday, with containment at 32%, according to InciWeb. It has killed and maimed livestock, consumed pasturelands and blanketed crops with smoke.
“It’s been awful,” said Connie Willard, leader of Project Spirit, a nonprofit horse rescue.
The past two weeks, Willard and her volunteers have been helping small farms evacuate hundreds of animals. Willard’s team has rescued cows, sheep, goats, emus, pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys.
The Bootleg Fire has been especially hard on cattle ranchers.
“It’s been horrific and devastating,” said Geneva Jayne, a rancher who runs cattle with her husband and in-laws on U.S. Forest Service land near where the fire started.
The fire, Jayne said, burned her entire permit where 180 cows were grazing, killing about 15 of her cows and one bull.
“We had to euthanize several because they were so badly injured — hooves missing, udders burned,” she said.
She started crying.
“I’m sorry. It’s still fresh.”
Her brother-in-law, Joe Jayne, a fifth-generation rancher, lost dozens of his cattle to the fire.
“I wish we could’ve got all our cows out, but we did what we could,” he said.
The wildfire consumed all but one of his permitted pastures. Because of hay prices and shortages, Jayne plans to sell many of his cattle this year, keeping only the best breeding stock.
Jimmy Gallagher, a Sprague River rancher who lost about 20 cow-calf pairs and one bull, said fire struck hardest in regions where grazing and prescribed burning had been restricted. These swathes of land, he said, are now white with ash — “looks like the moon.”
On the southwest tip of the Bootleg Fire, in Beatty, Jana Walker, fourth-generation cattle rancher, said she emerged from the fire luckier than most because she was able to evacuate all her cattle, about 250 to 300 head.
“We didn’t lose any,” she said. “I think we’re one of the few producers that can say that.”
But Walker did lose crucial summer forage. She’s in “scramble mode” now spreading out cattle, paying freight to haul water, looking for micro-pastures to graze — she calls them “yards.”
Walker said the fire was another tragedy in a series of natural disasters. Before the Bootleg Fire hit, her pastures were already thin from drought, heat waves and swarms of grasshoppers.
“That’s one of the jokes we make: The only good thing about the fire is it burned up the grasshoppers,” she said.
Ross Fleming, a Klamath Falls farmer, similarly joked about “Biblical plagues.”
“I mean hell, right here in Klamath County a few of the prophesies have been fulfilled already this year. And I’m not a churchgoing guy that much,” he said.
Although Fleming is removed from the immediate fire, its smoke has blocked some sunlight from reaching his potatoes and garlic.
“I think we’ve added a fifth season in Klamath County: smoke season,” he said.
Dan Chin, another Klamath Falls farmer who grows potatoes, onions, garlic, alfalfa and wheat, said he believes all of his crops this year will be impacted by smoke, especially since sunlight was blocked at a crucial time for crop development.
“I think we’ll see less yield this year,” he said.