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By Jon Reddy

Of the Sentinel

MONUMENT - The Monument Complex wildfire here has grown to 21,500 acres and is threatening farmland, trees, and wildlife.

'I have not heard of any ranchers or farmers having any personal property damage as of yet, but the fires right now seem to be in such wide open country,' says Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Baker, where most of the state's fires are now under way.

Only 10 percent contained, firefighters are still struggling to combat walls of flame at the Monument Complex fire, fueled by juniper trees, 100-degree heat and 25-mile-per-hour gusts of wind. Forecasters called for a possibility of rain this week that would help firefighters control the blazes, but fire-starting lightning often comes with the rain.

With the region left tinder-dry by a near-record drought, low snow pack and low river levels, forests and grasslands are primed for fire.

The Monument Complex fire is near St. Anne Church in Monument, a mission church of St. Elizabeth Church in John Day.

Father Robert Van Sickler, pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish, has been busy ministering to firefighters on the front lines.

On Sunday, he was at a fire camp near John Day, which was soon afterward contained, and firefighters were decommissioned.

'Most of these fires are range fires, so they burn very fast and are not exactly as life-threatening as a forest fire, but can still be a menace,' says Fr. Van Sickler. 'But the real disaster is how the fires are robbing ranchers of prime grassland that their animals use for grazing.'

Most of the diocese's parishes, says Bishop Vasa, are away from vast areas of wilderness, with green spaces around the property to help shield the fire from property damage.

'We would hope that the pastor, administrator or parishioners would at least turn on the sprinklers if the fire were approaching in order to prevent damage,' says the bishop.

Last spring the pastor and administrator of Holy Redeemer Church in La Pine were evacuated when a wind gust pointed a fire in the direction of the parish.

The priests removed the Blessed Sacrament and chalice, and various other items before going to stay at the local high school in town. The winds eventually subsided, changed direction, and the fire was contained.

'It certainly is something we continue to watch,' says Bishop Vasa, for whom forest fires are a new threat.

The bishop, formerly of the farmlands of Nebraska, says brush fires there were only an occasional threat, with most quickly contained by the local pump truck that came to douse the blaze with water.

'Way in the northwestern part of Nebraska, we do have some pine trees where there was a forest fire, but that was many years ago,' says the bishop.

Forest fires are a familiar part of life in Eastern Oregon.

On Monday, Father Van Sickler left for Ukiah to minister to firefighters battling the Bridge Creek Fire.

He stayed overnight and celebrated Mass and a prayer service for the firefighters.

'Trying to do something in the evening is hard,' Father Van Sickler says.

'The troops are hot, tired, dirty and just want to go to bed; sometimes talking about spiritual things is the last thing on their mind.'

Father Van Sickler, a forester with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for close to 30 years before he retired and became a priest, says he has tremendous empathy for the men and women fighting the fires.

'It's a thankless job at times; you can work all day on a fire, just to watch it start up again. It can be very disheartening,' he explains.

As of Tuesday, there were five major fires burning in Oregon: the Monument Complex Fire; the Bridge Creek Fire; the Quartz Fire, near Ashland; the Crane Complex Fire in the Deschutes National Forest; and the Indian Springs Fire, near the Bly Mountains.

Nationally, last year's fire season was the worst in 50 years. It torched 8.4 million acres.