BEATTY, Ore.- The largest wildfire in the nation the Bootleg Fire is tearing through Klamath and Lake counties. It’s primarily burning in remote rural areas, presenting challenging terrain to fire fighters.
It’s also creating intense personal struggles for some land owners.
NBC5 visited with a cattle rancher in Beatty who fought the flames alongside fire fighters to try to protect his livelihood.
“Every rancher cares about his property, his livestock, the wildlife, your homes, the infrastructure. Your neighbor. You don’t want it to spread through you and jump on your neighbor. So the impulse is to jump in,” cattle rancher Michael Mastagni explained. He has been called head strong and even reckless for his response to fires on his land.
But it’s easy to understand why.
The cattle rancher is responsible for 50,000 acres of land, hundreds of cows, and 20 years of work put into this property.
“Downstream is the headquarters, 230 pairs of cows, horses, mules, my wife, four kids, everything we’ve worked for,” he said. So it’s no surprise he put himself quite literally in the line of fire when the bootleg fire began burning through the Klamath Basin. He and his ranch hands dug their own dozer lines, searched for cattle, and fought open cattle gates and fences with the flames at their backs.
“The fire had come down to the southeast and got around us, so our only option- as you can see you can’t really bail off the road left or right- we had to roll the windows up and pray and drive 50 miles per hour with no visibility…We were lucky enough to get out.”
Out here water is hard to come by, especially in this drought. Michael struggle to get some limited his fire fighting efforts.
“Even though you’ve cut fire lines and removing snags and falling trees that might cause spot fires, you just don’t have the support of a pumper that can get the spot fire half a mile over there extinguished before it becomes its own separate, raging wildfire,” he explained.
As it burned up Mastagni’s field, he says firefighters on the scene had orders to stop fighting the fire.
“There orders were to stand down and simply protect structures so they couldn’t support us in the rangeland to combat this sort of thing we have behind us.” He credits crews from California and other parts of Oregon for standing up for his land and continuing the fight.
“At that point and time, the good people with Calfire made the judgment call that this counts for defending structures.”
“They didn’t just step to the plate. They leapt over the plate, went above and beyond the call of duty. Got in the middle of things. Supported our teams and made a tremendous impact. I believe this is the first line on this fire that has been stopped and has been contained.” The rancher and fire teams have worked closely over the past week in a perfect collaboration between fire fighting power and local knowledge.
“They lose their air support, they’re pretty blind. Its just so rugged up this canyon and up this creek, you can’t get anywhere unless its on foot…We get them, based on our knowledge of the property, as close as we can in vehicles and then escort them down on horseback. They followed on foot into the hot spots.”
Defending the land and home also meant changing priorities – like efforts to get hundreds of heads of cattle closer to the home.
“Our primary concern at that time was to switch gears and we had to abandon the cattle operation.”
Fire fighters are now leaving the ranch, moving to the raging northeast edge of the fire. Mastagni is now left with the fallout – burned fields and scattered livestock.
“Really tough to get that reclaimed for wildlife and for stock and it just heartbreaking having lived here for twenty years… And you just have to look at it,” he said.
“There’s just no feed. The only choice you have is just to put them into your hay fields because you love them and you’ve got to practice good animal husbandry.”
As Mastagni surveys the fire scarred property and the forest land beyond, he’s finding survivors – brave cattle and their young calves … who somehow survived the unforgiving Bootleg Fire. We came upon a handful while we drove through the burn scar on his land, and his excitement was clear.
“There is still hope. Every time is see live cattle, it lifts me up. I think, your efforts aren’t in vain, this is not a fruitless endeavor, it was not in vain. These girls have survived this holocaust apocalyptic event,” Mastagni said.
Grace Smith is co-anchor for NBC5 News at 6. The Chicago native is a recent graduate of University of Miami with a Communication Honors degree specializing in Broadcast Journalism. She minored in Creative Writing and focused her senior thesis on social media usage and engagement. During her time at the University of Miami, she anchored multiple award-winning student television programs, covering everything from music festivals to the Super Bowl.
Though she loved Miami’s beaches, she’s thrilled to be in the Pacific Northwest where she can experience all four seasons and have a real Christmas tree! When she’s not at work, you can find Grace glued to any television showing live sports (especially if it’s the Chicago Bears) or attempting a new recipe as she learns to cook.