As if the year wasn’t already challenging enough, 2020’s wildfire season has been named one of the most destructive on record in the state of Oregon. Burning more than one million acres, the fires destroyed thousands of homes, and blanketed the entire state in heavy smoke for many days.
In early September, unusually high winds combined with an extremely dry summer caused multiple wildfires to expand quickly throughout the entire state, including Southern Oregon, the coast range, and the Willamette Valley. The fires caused level 3 “go now” evacuations for about 40,000 people and placed 500,000 people in evacuation zones, including more than 10% of Oregon’s dairy community.
As evacuations levels were announced, 20 of Oregon’s dairy farms were faced with the terrifying realization that they could lose their homes and livelihoods to a wildfire. Many packed up family members and moved some cattle, but in most cases the difficult decision was made to not evacuate the milking cows. Instead, farmers worked hard to create fire breaks around their farms, using their tractors to plow the ground to mineral soil, moving combustible materials, and using sprinklers designed for crop irrigation to keep the fields surrounding their barns wet and therefore safe from floating embers.
The decision to wait out the fires was not made lightly, and it was based on the best care for the cows. Milking cows require a specially formulated diet, a comfortable place to rest, and consistency. Darleen Sichley, one of Oregon’s dairy farmers faced with evacuation orders shared her story online stating that care for their animals was, and always will be, their top priority:
“Long term, yes, these conditions are not good for us and them. But honestly the stress of trying to move them to another farm at this point would be worse… I know that seems like a crazy concept to not evacuate the cows and we pray we are making the right decision, but conditions in our whole area make us confident they are safer staying then maybe having to move them multiple times as these fires continue.” – Darleen Sichley, Farmer, Abiqua Acres
In Southern Oregon, thousands of families lost their homes to the Almeda fire. Among those thousands were several employees of Rogue Creamery.
“After a harrowing night of wildfire blazing through our community, we are heartbroken and devastated to learn this morning that several members of our team have lost their homes. Many others are waiting to return home to see what’s left … For now, Rogue Creamery has been fortunate as our cows are safe and our facilities have been spared. But our hearts ache for all those in our community that have lost everything.” – Rogue Creamery
And yet, through this tragedy, the farming community demonstrated their dedication to their families, farms, and communities through their bravery and resiliency. Some spent long nights sleeping in their barns or offices, others helped their neighbors evacuate animals, and many farmers donated hay and feed to local fairgrounds housing evacuated animals.
As Mister Rogers is famously known to say, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
In Tillamook, one helper was dairy farmer Derrick Josi, who called on his 400,000 Facebook followers to support their local first responders. His call to action resulted in a Tillamook coffee shop receiving over $1,000 to cover breakfasts for firefighters working to save homes and dairy farms threatened by the Pike Fire.
Also in Tillamook, the helpers were at Tillamook Creamery, where they provided free boxed meals to families in their community who were required to evacuate.
In Saint Paul, the helper was dairy farmer Brandon Hazenberg whose farm was safe from evacuation zones. He spent his days hauling feed and bedding to nearby shelters and offered his dairy to neighboring farms in need of a place to house their animals.
In Rickreall, the helpers were from Darigold where single-serve milk was donated for food boxes provided to evacuees. In Central Point, the helpers were located at the Rogue Creamery, where, after several of their own teammates faced unprecedented tragedy, they offered fresh, hot food and women’s necessities to those displaced by the fires.
And in Scotts Mills, the helper was Darleen Sichley, whose farm was only miles away from the fire. She quickly shifted from saving her family’s farm to caring for her community as evacuation zones were downgraded and her neighbors returned to find unhealthy air conditions both inside and outside of their homes. Within a day, Sichley was able to secure 72 difficult-to-find air filters for her community to use to help purify the air inside their homes.
Many farmers are volunteer fire fighters, which proved extremely valuable with preparing for the approaching wildfires. Sichley’s husband, Ben, has been a volunteer fire fighter for over 16 years, and her father, Alan, has been serving the department for 39 years. “I think volunteer firefighting and that farmer mentality just go hand-in-hand in serving our neighbors in their time of need. It’s that sense of community service that has us not only caring for our farms and cows, but the future generations of our community.”
“Farmers just know about helping other people. You help your neighbor, it’s just what you do.” – Steve Aamodt, former dairy farmer and volunteer firefighter for over 28 years.
As summer came to an end and rain provided a much-needed assist for fire fighters, the smoke has dissipated and flames and hot spots are being extinguished. This has been yet another surreal chapter in the book of 2020 that we hope is behind us. Once again, it showcased an enduring theme of the Oregon dairy story – the resiliency and generosity of our farmers and processors.