Unmatched drought, 113-degree temperatures, but a commitment to live life regardless

Turning the calendar to a new year provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on the events that defined the year we just lived together. Some of the things that happened in 2021 will change the way we live our lives in Jefferson County going forward, and some of the events changed our perspective.

We call to your attention the drought, the COVID vaccine, the heat wave, the battle over consolidating fire and ambulance service in the county, and the record exploding attendance at the Jefferson County Fair.

#1 Drought

PIONEER PHOTO ARCHIVE - Drought sticken land

No story had as deep and far-reaching impact on Jefferson County than the drought. While farmers felt it first and hardest, the rest of the county experience the water shortage in ways we may not immediately realize and this year's experience may forever change how Jefferson County does agriculture in the future.

On Jan. 5 the North Unit Irrigation District leaders celebrated signing the Habitat Conservation Plan, a plan 12 years in the making to provide water to preserve aquatic habitat in the Deschutes River Basin.

Little did they know then the provisions of the plan coupled with the searing drought would create the worst water year on record for Jefferson County farmers since irrigation began in the district 75 years ago.

The watermasters planned conservatively, or so they thought, starting out the season with an allotment of just one acre foot of water, the lowest allotment on record. Farmers usually work with between two- and three-acre feet of water.

Right from the beginning farmers and ranchers cut back production plans. Most planted only half their land leaving the rest of their land fallow and at risk of the wind blowing away their topsoil.

The year turned out even dryer than expected. Wickiup Reservoir, water storage dedicated exclusively for North Unit farmers, never fully filled, and started draining faster than expected.

At the end of June, the NUID board cut the allotment by one-tenth to nine-tenths of an acre foot.

"This is not something we take lightly," said board chair Marty Richards. It was only the second time in the districts history to drop the allotment from what they originally promised.

But steep drop of water levels in the reservoirs and the rivers forced the board to reduce the immediate demand to extend the water later into the season.

Ten days later the board cut the water allotment again by another tenth and initiated a cap on orders limiting farmers to a percentage of the water remaining in their accounts.

The final blow came when the district turned water off completely on August 23, when farmers typically have water until mid-October.

"It's a frickin' disaster," said Phil Fine born on his Jefferson County farm 55 years ago. "This spring Mother Nature hasn't done us any favors; in fact, she's kicked our butt every time she's had a chance."

Farmers who had already cut their production by half or more now had to abandon some crops they'd planted.

Vern Bare invested $50,000 to fertilize 240 acres to double the yield of his orchard grass, which typically earns $330 a ton. As soon as he applied the fertilizer, the irrigation board announced the second 10 percent cutback in water.

"Had I known," says Bare, "I'd have kept (the fertilizer) in the bag."

He lost the $50,000 he invested in fertilizer. The crop died, so he won't earn the $170,000 he expected. The grass won't survive long without water, so he'll have to spend money to replant next year.

No one questions farmers would have been better off this year if they could have used the 28,000 acre feet of water reserved for endangered species.

On Aug. 17 farmers and ranchers filled the Sisters Building wall to wall at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds to hear advice from national experts on how to navigate the HCP.

As it becomes clearer the Wickiup Reservoir may no longer provide enough water for agriculture in the Jefferson County, NUID put genuine resources into building a pumping station in Lake Billy Chinook, a $400-million project.

In December the state legislature voted in a drought relief package allocating $17.1 million for the North Unit. Only Klamath and Jefferson Counties received direct funding from the package.

Jefferson County's Rep. Daniel Bonham (R-The Dalles) said the state recognized the importance of our county's agriculture. "The question being asked was, 'Is the rest of the state interested in continuing farming in Jefferson County.' And apparently the answer is 'Yes.'"

#2 COVID Vaccine

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - Moderna vaccine vial

The COVID vaccine appeared as the new year dawned. People greeted the serum as salvation or damnation depending on which color horse a person rode in on.

At first people clamored for the vaccine. Especially older and medically fragile people got on waiting lists and drove for hours to get an appointment.

Julie O'Connor drove from Portland to Madras to get the shot. "I've been looking for a week, and this was the only appointment I could find," she said.

On March 6, with the help of 30 members of the Oregon National Guard, Jefferson County Public Health gave the vaccine to 1,300 people at a one-day clinic at Madras High School.

Then, almost as quickly as it ramped up, demand for the vaccine plummeted. As soon as everyone who wanted the vaccine had the vaccine, health leaders started begging people to get vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus.

In June, the state of Oregon entered the names of vaccinated people into a lottery giving out $1.86 million in prizes. Jefferson County had a vaccination lottery too, offering eight $10,000 prizes and three $10,000 scholarships to students younger than 18.

Rumors developed about the safety of the vaccine: it was developed too quickly; it has long-term effects; it can make you infertile. Many people resisted getting the vaccine.

At the end of June, satisfied enough people had vaccine protection, Oregon Governor Kate Brown lifted COVID restriction.

People could gather in large groups again, no longer wear masks in public, businesses could open without occupancy limits.

When Brown made that ruling, the new, more virulent Delta variant accounted for only 12 percent of COVID cases in Oregon.

Then Delta variant took off and brought Oregon the highest spike in cases since the pandemic began in spring of 2020. COVID patients overwhelmed the hospitals. Unvaccinated people represented by far the majority of new cases, and unvaccinated people with COVID were far more likely to have symptoms serious enough to require hospitalization.

Vaccination became the mantra for health leaders as the best tool to end the pandemic. On Aug. 10, Governor Brown issued a vaccine mandate for all employees in Oregon's executive branch. A week later Brown extended that mandate to health care workers, and to teachers, school staff, and school volunteers.

Protests erupted at school board meetings across the state, including Jefferson County 509-J in Madras. At the Sept. 15 board meeting tempers flared, unmasked people waved signs and yelled forcing the board chair to call a recess for the crowd to cool.

"Is this really justice for all," said Michelle Stensgar who has grandchildren in the district, "take your shot or lose your job?"

"I don't like being bullied and being told that I'm going to lose my job," said district employee Misha Kubo. "So, therefore, I will not comply."

The shouting match built on months of protests against masking and against business closures. Joe Davis owner of the Madras Black Bear Diner won fans and dissenters when he opened to indoor dining in the face of COVID restrictions. Six months later Oregon's Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Davis $8,900. Later Davis quietly paid the fine. People filled the tables at his restaurant from the moment he reopened.

As the fall wore on and the Delta variant gained momentum, it became clear the vaccine lost effectiveness over time. Breakthrough cases, vaccinated people infected with the coronavirus, grew from 20 percent of the cases to 30 percent. Vaccination still prevented serious symptoms for most, but several chose to get a third, booster, shot of the vaccine.

By early October the Jefferson County Public Health department teamed up with St. Charles-Madras to administer monoclonal antibody treatments to COVID patients exhibiting symptoms. The treatment boosts the immune system to specifically fight off the coronavirus. The treatments prevented several people from needing hospitalization.

As the sun began to set on 2021, a new COVID threat appeared on the horizon. The Omicron variant spreads faster than the Delta variant but seems to result in less severe disease, according to the Oregon Health Authority. The vaccine still provides a level of protection against this new mutation.

Looking at the statistics, Jefferson County Public Health Director Michael Baker expects cases from Omicron to peak in February. "We expect to be overrun in February."

#3 Heat wave

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - When temperatures soared to a record high of 113 degrees, children found relief at the Ethan Stovall Splash Park in downtown Madras.

The mercury climbed to 113 degrees in Madras on Tuesday, June 29, shattering the previous 109-degree record set the day before.

The locals compared stepping outside to opening a hot oven door. Those without air conditioning wished they could set up camp inside a refrigerator. Some folks handed out free cold bottles of water, while there were reports of the air conditioning going out at some local restaurants. Fans and AC units flew off the shelves of stores across the state.

The National Weather Service had forecast the record-breaking triple-digit temperatures and sent out excessive heat warnings throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The record-breaking 113 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded at 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 29 at the Madras Airport, reported Marilyn Lohmann of the National Weather Service in Pendleton.

Preliminary data from the National Weather Service show that Madras thermometers shot to 109 degrees at 4 p.m. on Monday, June 28, breaking the previous record of 106 degrees set on Aug. 5, 1998, reached again on July 13, 2002, and a third time July 24, 2006.

Sunday, June 27 was 106 degrees, then came the two record-breaking days. Wednesday, June 30 reached 102 degrees in Madras before temps dropped back into highs the 90s for the rest of the heat wave.

According to July 2 preliminary data from the Oregon State Medical Examiner, there were 95 deaths in Oregon related to the heat wave. There were no heat-related deaths reported in Jefferson or Crook counties, but the deaths of two men in their 60s were blamed on the heat wave in neighboring Deschutes County.

Jefferson County EMS reported a handful of heat-related medical calls, such as dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

The Jefferson County Faith Based Network set up a day-time cooling center at the Madras Free Methodist Church from Saturday, June 26 to Saturday, July 3.

"It was mainly for homeless people, but it was open to the community for anyone that needed a cool place," said Faith Based Network Executive Director Tony Mitchell.

Between 20 and 25 different people took advantage of the cooling center.

"We encountered people who were on the sidewalk literally just exhausted and close to heat exhaustion, and we were able to bring them to the shelter and provide them a meal and hydration, and we played movies and just generally had a good time," Mitchell said. "We're confident that we probably participated in saving a couple lives."

Extreme temperatures made matters worse for farmers already suffering from the drought. The stretch of triple-digit heat hurt Marty Richards' carrot seed crop.

The heat hit when the king umbel, the biggest flower on top of the stalk, glowed white with pollen.

"I watched the heat turn that white to brown over the course of 48 hours," says Richards. "So, we know we lost that pollen."

Another carrot seed farmer, Rob Galyen, says the heat hurt the pollinators, too. "Honeybees don't do well in the heat."

#4 Fire/Ambulance Consolidation

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - EMS and Fire truck

On May 18 Jefferson County voters set a new direction for how they'll receive fire and ambulance service. They didn't vote on an initiative or on a measure, but on a slate of candidates for the Emergency Medical Services Board. What in the past had been a quiet race turned into the hottest race on the ballot. In past elections no one challenged the incumbents on the EMS board. John Curnutt and Patricia Neff had each served on the board for 35 years and never had an opponent. This time candidates campaigned with ads, signs, and participated in a candidate's forum to win a seat on a volunteer board that meets once a month. Currently EMS and fire operate under separate boards. Fees for service, grants and subscriptions pay for the ambulance service. Tax levies fund the fire service. Currently the EMS staffs the ambulance hall 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The Jefferson County Fire District No. 1 staffs the fire hall from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and depends on volunteers to respond to fires in off hours. Incumbents argued the ambulance service runs well and stands on strong financial ground, that combining the services would likely lead to higher taxes. The challengers argued combining the two services would allow firefighters to staff engines around the clock. They said efficiencies combining the two services would save money and eliminate the need for new taxes. Voters did back all three pro-merger candidates, but it wasn't a landslide. Out of 2,606 votes cast for either candidate, not counting write-ins, Joe Krenowicz topped incumbent Neff by 58 votes; out of 2,593 votes cast in her race, Janet Brown passed incumbent Curnutt by 189; and out of 2,666 votes cast in his race, Mike Ahern won the race against incumbent Louise Muir by 256 votes. By electing candidates in favor of consolidating, voters set the gears in motion to join ambulance and fire service into one organization. The fire and ambulance Consolidation Working Group held its first meeting on Sept. 29. They've set a goal to have both entities operating as one unit by July of 2022, but with separate boards for at least a year to make sure the new arrangement meets the needs of both organizations. Just before Christmas the fire board hired a new fire chief. Jeff Blake, retiring battalion chief from Bend Fire, is eager for the consolidation. Blake believes it will improve response times for the fire department.

#5 Fair attendance explodes

PMG PHOTO: HOLLY SCHOLZ - Emma Call and her show rabbit at the Jefferson County Fair which had record attendance this July and reaped in profits exponentially better than any previous year.

After the pandemic forced a year without county fairs people virtually burst through the gates at the Jefferson County Fair on July 21 through 24.

"I was almost ecstatic joy to see all these people down here having fun," said Fairgrounds Coordinator Brian Crow. "Kids have ice cream spilled on their shirt and their mouths blue with cotton candy, families laughing and having fun, the screams from the midway, the hogs snorting and the cows mooing. It was so cathartic for me."

The Jefferson County Fair and Rodeo usually breaks even or nets between $5,000 and $10,000. This year's fair soared past all previous records, posting earnings between $75,000 and $80,000.

The fair also happened before the governor's mask mandate. Crow says after the mask rules went into effect, other fairs had significantly reduced attendance.

— Attendance was up 70% with about 30,000 people

— Food revenue was up 57%

— Rodeo revenue increased by 33%

— Carnival revenue more than doubled, up 115%

The new midway vendor, Paul Mauer Shows, brought in five more rides, 20 rides instead of the usual 15.

Crow says Mauer spent the pandemic cleaning the rides and replacing the incandescent bulbs with LEDs. "It was like a light show after dark," said Crow. "Spectacular!"

The Countryfied Friday night concert and the Toast and Jam Saturday night concert had three times the number of people than they normally do.

"The rodeo sold out both nights, which I have never seen, and the community stepped up for the auction in a huge way," Crow said.

The annual Jefferson County Livestock Association 4-H and FFA Market Auction saw record-high prices, reported auction organizer Kristina Gomes.

Parking has always been an issue for the Jefferson County fair. This year, it was worse.

"We tried to put 10 pounds of sugar in a 5-pound bag," said Crow.

Drone photos showed no available parking within a mile of the fairgrounds.

On September 15 the fair broke ground on its new show barn. At 14,000 square feet it will be the largest building constructed on the fairgrounds in 70 years.

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