Oregon Farmers Face Dual Struggles With Pandemic, Wildfires

PORTLAND, Ore.–Farmer, EMT and volunteer firefighter Jan Hupp went to bed in the early hours of a recent morning after putting out a small fire in Drake Crossing, about 30 miles east of Salem. He thought the fire was “nothing major.”

It wasn’t until his son, a professional firefighter in the nearby town of Molalla, called to tell Hupp that he was in an area under a Level 3 “Go!” evacuation order that he knew he had to get out immediately.

“We got everybody into town and when I came back, about halfway up, there was this wall of smoke,” Hupp says. “It was like night and day.”

By 8 a.m., the darkness resembled midnight.

“When it finally got light enough that we could see, the smoke was still everywhere,” Hupp says. “If you looked left and right there was nothing but the orange glow of the fire. And you don’t know, is it a mile away? Is it five miles away? We just started doing what we could in the department to make sure everyone was out of the district. Everyone knew that there is no fighting a fire like this; it’s all defensive.”

Using excavators and bulldozers to create fire lines in the ground contained the fires.

“That fire screamed down, and then it stopped just a mile before our district,” Hupp says.

With the threat of fires weakening, Hupp’s farm returned to work last Monday with farm workers equipped with KN95 masks as the smoke persists.

The Oregon fires have burned upward of 1 million acres, posing a threat to farming and agriculture, which is among the state’s top-three economic sectors, alongside manufacturing and tourism. It is the second blow to a region already fighting the coronavirus pandemic. State Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis was 30 miles from Drake Crossing on the morning Hupp fought the fire.

[READ: Firefighters Battle Blazes — and COVID-19]

“It’ll be one of those mornings that you never, ever forget,” Boshart Davis says. “At about 8 o’clock or so, the sky was black. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Boshart Davis had heard that the Linn County Fairgrounds, in her district, was becoming an evacuation site. She decided to see what was going on.

“I quickly realized that nobody was really managing the animals,” Boshart Davis says. “So I basically just stepped in. And then I just basically didn’t leave.”

Boshart Davis was named national farm mom of the year in 2015, and is actively involved with the 4-H program in her community. Over the next few days, she worked with the fairgrounds to take in approximately 700 evacuated farm animals, from horses to goats to emus, and getting them back to their owners when possible.

For farmers across the state, who have already undergone a difficult year navigating the pandemic and its impact on their income, the wildfires will leave a lasting imprint.

The tragedy brings to the fore the urban-rural divide in Oregon and across the nation, pitting the priorities of more populous areas against those in smaller, more rural communities — which, in the Beaver State, includes much of its 30 million forested acres.

“Those are conversations that have been difficult in this state,” Boshart Davis says. “There’s been this urban-rural divide, it’s very strained nationally on a political stage and here in Oregon, but this should bring to light the problems that we have, and the people hopefully that get elected are the ones that can sit down at the table with all stakeholders and say, ‘how do we make this best for all of Oregon?'”

In the state’s more urban environments, such as Portland and its surrounding areas, the fires and the pandemic are presenting problems of their own.

Holly Hutchason is the executive director of the Portland Area CSA Coalition, a nonprofit focused on connecting local farmers with members of the community.

“Most of what we’re seeing here in the north part of the state is, there’s two ways farmers are being impacted: one is that, because of the air quality the farmers markets have closed, so they’ve lost that retail outlet,” Hutchason says “The second way they’re being affected is the smoke is so bad that they can’t go out and harvest. So even if they’re on their land, they can’t pick the food because they can’t be outside.”

Ideally, farmers in these smoke-filled conditions would have respirators, but lately they haven’t been able to access any, Hutchason explains.

“There’s no respirators, they’re all out of stock,” Hutchason says. “So the farmers have to decide: ‘Is this the risk I want to take?'”

Then there’s COVID-19.

[READ: New Ways to Raise Livestock, Improve the Land in CA]

“What happened to the farmers earlier in the year due to COVID has been very different depending on what kind of farm they have,” Hutchason says. “Farmers who are very dependent on restaurant accounts clearly either had to take losses or change their business model very quickly. They were very innovative and they pivoted very quickly and they provided us with what we needed. So it’s very hard to see them impacted now — not even being able to get the food that they planted.”

Barb Iverson, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, further illustrates the loss experienced by farmers throughout Oregon as a result of the pandemic.

“We’re just tired of this year,” Iverson says. “With COVID, we lost agriculture tourism, then we lost weddings and events. It’s just been a tough year.”

But the coronavirus did prepare farmers for some of the aftermath of the fires.

“That’s one thing about COVID: Everyone has masks now,” Iverson said. “We have N95 masks. That’s fairly good; it helps filter.”

In western Oregon, which has historically escaped catastrophic weather events, the crop losses may be felt more severely than other areas, Iverson says

“We usually don’t have crop insurance in Oregon, or not a lot of us use it in the western part of the state because we never have catastrophic, complete losses of our crops,” Iverson says. “The threshold to get a return on that insurance is usually so high that it really doesn’t pay off for us. We’re blessed where we’re at, because we usually don’t have too many problems here.”

More from U.S. News

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Oregon Farmers Face Dual Struggles With Pandemic, Wildfires originally appeared on usnews.com

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