DAYVILLE – When Rancher Michael Rossi got the call Tuesday about a raging forest fire, he had one job: Move cattle.

Rossi and two other ranchers just a month ago turned out about 1,000 cow-calf pairs to spend the summer grazing and getting fat on forest grass.

A single lightning strike changed all that, igniting what is being called the Corner Creek Fire. The out-of-control blaze that started about 11 miles south of the rural town of Dayville ran through 27,000 acres by Saturday night.

Firefighters caught a break Saturday to slow down the fire’s march when winds settled, according to Incident Commander John Buckman with the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“They clobbered the south end of the fire,” said Buckman, managing the work of more than 700 firefighters from the historic Dayville School.

Overnight infrared mapping showed plenty of hot spots keeping the fire moving to the south. Any significant growth there will endanger private ranches and chew into sage grouse habitat that ranchers, environmentalists and government conservationists are struggling to preserve. 

Buckman said the fire continues to grow to the northwest, a challenging advance to stop because that portion of the monster is inside the Black Canyon Wilderness. Firefighting rules are much tighter in the wilderness, requiring specialized hot shot crews.

On Sunday, fire officials ordered 22 more 20-person fire crews to help tackle the fire. They also are shifting crew by crew the 300 or so firefighters assigned to the nearby Sugarloaf fire, burning near the John Day Fossil Beds.

For Rossi, his summer changed in an instant. He headed to his forest allotment with helpers to move his cattle out of harm’s way. So did rancher Micah Wilson, running cows for the IZ Ranch.

Wilson said the cattle are accustomed to summers on the rich grass, and getting them to move wasn’t easy.

“They don’t want to go home,” Wilson said. “It was a battle to get those cows to go.”

Rossi and others rode in on horseback to conduct the unscheduled round-up. At times, they were pushing cows through stands of burning trees.

“We just open the gates and keep ’em moving,” Rossi said.

With the summer range gone, Rossi and other ranchers will have to rely on private ground for summer feeding. For Rossi, that means he’ll have to graze his cattle on fields where he expected to raise hay for winter feeding. He typically puts up 200 tons of hay worth about $150 a ton.

Now, he said, he’ll likely have to buy hay for winter instead of storing his own.

And by Forest Service rules, it may be one to two years before the burned forest is considered recovered enough to allow grazing to resume.

Buckman, the fire boss, said conditions on the fire last week were especially challenging. He said temperatures ran 100 degrees or more, humidity was low, and wind was gusting to 25 mph. Those conditions took a fire that was 600 acres on Wednesday and turned it into a 19,000-acre mess by Friday.

“The fire has the upper hand in those conditions,” Buckman said. “The fire wins.”

He said crews would think they had contained a small section only to “look over their shoulder and see another acre fire behind them.”

Fire costs by Saturday totaled an estimated $3 million. Forestry Department finance officials said heavy-lift helicopters cost up to $46,000 a day. A 20-person crew of contracted firefighters runs $11,000 for a 12-hour shift. A water tender, feeding water to more nimble fire pumpers, cost $1,700 a day.

And then there is the firefighting city, complete with its own fueling station, a firefighting version of Costco with pallets of supplies, and a station to wash weeds off incoming trucks to keep invasives from spreading. Catering crews plan meals to see that firefighters get 6,000 calories a day – three times the typical adult diet.

Buckman said Sunday that “things were looking better” but he worried about forecasted thunderstorms expected to arrive midweek.

And he knows this isn’t the last big fire he’ll likely manage this season.

“It’s going to be a really challenging summer,” he said, and then tucked on his baseball cap and headed to yet another briefing.

— Les Zaitz

503-221-8181; @leszaitz

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