Burns is located at the northwest corner of Harney Valley, where the Silvies River flows out of the mountains. It is the county seat of Harney County and the largest town in the county. It was settled in the early 1880s and the city was organized on January 22, 1884.
Harney County was split off from Grant County in 1889 and the county seat was located at Harney, Because of the long journey (two days on horseback) from Burns to Harney, a fierce political battle ensued and the county seat was moved to Burns, winning by just six votes. The county records were moved by armed riders in the nighttime.
Burns is at 4,147 feet in elevation at the center of town, which is on the level ground of the valley floor. The streets extend up the hillside to about 4250 feet in elevation in the northwest corner of town. To the south and east, Harney Valley is so broad that only the outlines of distant mountains can be seen on the horizon. The hills to the north and west are mostly covered in sagebrush although areas of junipers and cedars can be seen. They rise gradually further from Burns and become forested and beautiful. Harney County is home to one of the largest forests of Ponderosa Pine in America, and logging has been and still is a major industry for the residents of the area.
Harney Valley is an ancient lakebed, whose waters have dwindled over centuries’ time. Malheur Lake, the remnant of that lake, still covers a large area on the south side of the valley.
Burns had a population of 2,806 as of the 2010 census, a decline of about 250 over the last decade as increasing government regulation takes its toll on local industries.
The town of Hines adjoins Burns to the southwest. U.S. Highways 20 and 395 run through both towns as a combined route, heading roughly northeast-southwest. The streets of Burns are laid out in a grid aligned with north, so the highway comes into town from the west and turns north at the main intersection. Highway 20 is an east-west route that leads to Vale and Idaho to the east and Bend to the west. Highway 395 is a north-south route that leads to John Day to the north and Lakeview to the south. All of these towns are a long distance from Burns. The two highways separate just outside of Burns to the northeast, and, on the other side, at Riley, some twenty miles to the west. State Highway 78 heads east from the main intersection in Burns, and crosses Harney Valley to the southeast. State Highway 205 begins just east of Burns and heads south across the valley.