Miller Homestead fire largest in county since 2007
By Jennifer Jenks
As of Tuesday morning, the Miller Homestead fire, started by lightning July 8 at around 4 p.m., was listed at 162,094 acres and 85 percent contained, with lessened threat to the communities of Frenchglen and Harney Lake by successful containment efforts and progression of mop-up activities.
With two structures lost, one a roofless, abandoned mobile home and the other a single structure within the M.S. Davies homestead, in addition to the unknown number of livestock and wildlife lost or damaged, as well as grazing and other agricultural and public lands destroyed, the wildfire is the largest one Harney County has seen since 2007.
At an Open House held at the Harney County Community Center in Burns Monday evening, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Fire Operations Supervisor Ryan Hussey, who is stationed at Frenchglen and was the Initial Attack Incident Commander on the fire, described the start of the fire. He had been following along behind a thunderstorm when it started pouring rain. He headed back to Frenchglen, where he received a call from a landowner about a possible fire. It turned out the fire had started from a single stray lightning bolt, Hussey said.
Hussey headed out with two engines, but quickly realized the fire was bigger than they had thought and called in the only other two engines in Frenchglen. Hussey decided to do a direct attack on the head of the fire, but the wind began “squirreling,” changing from northeast to southwest, and the terrain was extremely rocky.
He reported he spoke with landowners in the area whose lives and structures were in most imminent danger from the fire and worked with them to get access to the fire and find road systems, as well as help in building firelines. At that point, Hussey had called in six more engines from other areas, as well as a bulldozer. The fire was at 3,800 acres and the 10 engines surrounded the fire and bedded down at midnight. Usually, Hussey said, the fire ends up dying down during the night, but this one did not do that.
The next morning, areas of the fire started taking off in different directions and Hussey did not have enough manpower, in the end, to successfully contain the wildfire. The next plan of attack was to try to keep the fire from crossing Jack Mountain Road and to protect landowners in the area. Hussey said at this point they were unable and unwilling to start backfires because of all the cattle in the area. They fought the fire all that day and had a good plan with one of the landowners to try to get behind the fire, Hussey said, but lost air support when it got dark, and then all he could see was a solid wall of fire about one and one-half miles headed due east with 15-foot flames.
The new priority then became Frenchglen. All the engines were called back in from the areas they were working on and they began to do a backburn approximately one mile from Frenchglen. From 11 p.m. until 2 a.m., they worked on the burn, he said, and the flames went for about 100 feet and then burned out. Some engines bedded down at residences that evening to provide assistance if it was needed.
The next morning, July 10, the fire started going south again from its origin, in addition to the fronts they were fighting to the north and east, and the resources were spread too thin, Hussey said. At this point, a Type 3 Team was brought in, led by Ken Gregor, who coordinated ground and air resources from that point until it was taken over by the Type 2 Team.
Under Gregor’s leadership, the crews attempted a backburn along the northern line of the fire, but the wind changed, he said, and they were not able to get it done. The fire escaped and headed north. The afternoon of July 12, the fire raged out of control, more than doubling in size from 67,760 acres that morning to 158,331 acres by about 5 p.m.
Residents in Frenchglen and around Harney Lake were put on an evacuation notice, and late that evening, Harney Lake residents were asked to evacuate.
“We are not set up to deal with highly complex, very large incidents,” Gregor explained, so they called in the Type 2 Team, who assumed command the following day.
Brian Watts, who also happens to be a former Burns resident and Burns High School graduate, took over as Incident Commander July 13. Watts is with the Blue Mountain Interagency Incident Management Team, comprised primarily of members from Burns and Vale working for the BLM and the Malheur, Umatilla and Fremont-Winema national forests. He said the rate at which the fire grew was “just incredible.” They worked on getting more resources in and building fire lines, and then got a break in the weather, and the fire began to die down. Spot fires started on the northern side of Jack Mountain Road and on the refuge, but they were all contained and the evacuation orders were lifted.
The fire lines have held fairly steady for the last three days, Watts stated, and they expected to turn the fire back over to local management by Thursday morning. He noted they would be watching the area for some time yet, as a lot of what burned was juniper, which holds heat in for a lot longer than sagebrush and grass. As of Tuesday morning, there were 733 total personnel working on the fire.
Fire Behavior Analyst Roy Walker from John Day spoke about the conditions that aided in the spread of both this wildfire and the Long Draw fire just across the border in Malheur County. There was not a lot of snowpack in Southeastern Oregon this year, which meant grasses did not get compacted. With the uncompacted grass along with this year’s new growth, it added a lot to the fuel load.
The temperatures have been above normal throughout the spring and moisture levels are a lot lower here right now than they usually are at this time.
“Be warned,” he said, “it’s going to be a long summer.”