Monday, October 19, 2009

Introducing Myself – Why I wrote BEYOND THE FLAMES

As a child I always wanted a horse. My parents lived in a small rural Idaho town, and got a horse for me when I was 9 years old. The next year we acquired a cabin on several acres, and spent a couple summers there; then my parents began purchasing the neighboring ranch. From that point on, I grew up with horses and cattle--and for a long time these wonderful animals were the main focus of my life. I married a rancher in 1966 and we began raising our own herd of hardy, crossbred beef cattle that could thrive on rugged mountain pastures. We also raised a few horses, since taking care of our cattle required many hours on horseback.
The ranch was a wonderful place to raise children, as well. Our son and daughter grew up working with us—tagging along to ride range in summer or to feed cows in winter. They learned to ride on a gentle old mare named Khamette. She was the first horse I’d raised myself, when I was a young teenager. In her teen years she helped raise my children. Each of them in turn learned to ride her, at first being led from my own horse (when they were too small to control a horse by themselves) as we traveled many miles and hours checking cattle, fences and water troughs on the range, or moving and gathering cattle. Khamette could walk, trot or gallop right beside my horse, or drop back and follow if we had to traverse a narrow trail through the brush. The kid held the reins and gained confidence, but mom had the lead rope and the old mare worked in unison with my horse. As the kids got older, they each graduated to riding their own horses.
In winter they learned to drive the old jeep to help their daddy feed cows. While still very young, they stood on the seat to steer. Unable to reach the brakes, they could stop the outfit by turning off the key, if necessary. When they got big enough to reach the pedals, some of their starts and stops were abrupt; daddy had to learn to fall off the load of hay gracefully and try to land on his feet if his young driver popped the clutch!
Our son and daughter enjoyed working on the ranch and were excellent help as they grew up, learning to run the machinery (our son Michael started baling hay when he was 9 years old) and help with the cattle. Andrea became very good at helping me train the young horses we raised; we rode almost daily to check our cattle. “Sagebrush 101” was the best training ground for green horses.
Ranching is a wonderful way of life, but a difficult way to make a living. I helped make ends meet by writing. It was my “off farm job” that I could do at home at odd hours when I wasn’t being midwife to 170 cows during calving season or riding range in summer. I’d been writing stories and articles since high school, selling them to children’s magazines and then to horse and livestock publications. I wrote my first book (A Horse in Your Life; A Guide for the New Owner) when I was still in college. By the time our kids were growing up and ready to go to college, I’d sold more than 7000 articles and published 10 books.
Our son married Carolyn, whom he met at college. After a few years with good jobs in Boise, they both wanted to get back to the land (she was raised on a farm near Arco, Idaho), especially after their two children Heather and Nick arrived (born in 1991 and 1993); they didn’t want to raise their kids in the city. After leasing a couple different ranches in south central Idaho, they moved back to our place and we built them a home on part of our upper place. They use it as a base of operations for the several ranches they’re leasing nearby. We sold them several groups of cows over the years, to help them get started, and now they’re running 400 cows.
Our daughter married Jim, and they lived in a mobile home on our lower place, helping us with our cattle. Their first child, Emily, was born in 1998. Andrea and Jim had a small herd of cows of their own, here on the ranch, and worked part time for us with some other jobs on the side. My husband Lynn and I were delighted to have all our family close by, and were enjoying our grandkids. Then in the blink of an eye, our lives were forever changed.
Andrea suffered a terrible burn accident the night of July 5, 2000, while trying to help a friend control an out-of-control range fire—one of the first of many terrible fires that swept the West during that hot, dry summer. The wind changed and brought the fire over them while they were trying to make a fire line. Andrea ran through a wall of 20-foot high flames to get out of the fire, and then had to make it another quarter mile down the mountain. Only a series of miracles helped her survive,
including the incredible timing and teamwork of our local volunteer firemen, search and rescue unit and EMTs, to get Andrea and her friend to our little hospital 12 miles away, to be life-flighted to the Intermountain Burn Center at Salt Lake City, Utah.
She clung to life by sheer determination for many days, unwilling to give up because there was still so much she wanted to live for, and she didn’t want to leave 2 year old Emily without a mama. With severe burns over more than half her body, it was a tough fight, and many times her life hung by a thread. Family members took turns driving the 380 miles to Salt Lake, to have one of us always there at her bedside. We were as devastated emotionally as she was physically, and our lives went on “hold” as we tried to help her hang onto life.
This “detour” affected us profoundly—the ones who stayed with Andrea in the burn ICU to lend their strength for her to hang onto, and the ones who stayed home at the ranch to try to keep things going (thank God for neighbors who helped with the haying) and to take care of little Emily. Our experience that summer changed our lives, but ultimately blessed us. This was the beginning of a pilgrimage that taught us more about love, patience, caring and sharing, humility and compassion.
We eventually learned that God can create good from even the most terrible things imaginable. The community spirit here in our rural area was astounding, and the circle of support widened to include people we didn’t know—who helped us in countless ways and kept us in their prayers. It’s humbling to discover how much people care and are willing to help another human being, making us realize we are truly one big family. We continue to correspond (more than 9 years later) with people whose paths crossed ours that summer, many whom we’ve still never met. Some of the greatest encouragement came from other burn survivors and their families. This is a part of life we’d never known—with a depth of sharing and caring that’s both humbling and elating as we discovered a strong network of support. Anyone who goes through this kind of experience, either as a patient or a family member, will never be the same.
Eventually I realized I had to write a book about this, and share our story—in hopes it might be a way to encourage and inspire other people going through extreme trauma. This could be a way to “pay it forward” and help others, since there is no way we can ever totally thank the many people who helped us. So, a year after Andrea’s accident I finally got up the courage to start writing the book. It took another year to write it, and track down the many people (more than 100 of them) I wanted to interview, to capture their memories and details. It was amazing to me, how clearly some of them remembered those details, so long after the fact.
Then, it took another year to find a publisher, since the one who does my horse and cattle books was not interested in this topic. I sent queries and sample chapters to dozens of publishers. Some felt that a book like this would have a limited audience, while others felt they couldn’t do justice to it because it deserved a large audience than they could give it! It was a frustrating challenge, but one thing we’d learned from our epic journey through the burn center was to never give up. I am grateful to Billie Johnson (Oak Tree Press) for believing in this book and publishing it. It is my hope that our story—BEYOND THE FLAMES; A FAMILY TOUCHED BY FIRE-- will be of help to others who find themselves suddenly thrust into terrifying, life-changing circumstances.
Meanwhile, life has continued on, here at the ranch, though with some changes. In future blogs I’ll tell you more about our family and what we’ve been doing.


  1. What a great testimony to faith, courage and love!

    Congratulations on the books and I wish it great success.

  2. Heather has always found a way to turn tragedy into something good. She has been a great friend throughout life, though our paths separated for a while. Writing is only one of her many talents and I wish her continued success with her storytelling. I was in one of her high school stories and couldn't wait for the next chapter. Keep up the good work, Heather.

  3. Thank you for this story; I look forward to reading more--and to reading your memoir of the fire year.

  4. P.S.--Heather, I just ordered your book from Amazon. Best wishes for good sales...

  5. I read this book and was amazed how Heather captured the every detail of what a burn patient and their family must endure. Since my nephew was burned in a gasoline explosion on Christmas 2004 over 65% of his body, our lives were never the same. We, like Andrea's family, have found strength in our faith and have witnessed one miracle after another. We cannot count the blessings that have come our way since Herbie's accident and we thank God everyday for people like Heather and her family so willing to share their trauma, hardship and most of all their encouragement. My nephew and I met Andrea and Heather at the 2008 World Burn Conference and have remained in touch. Miracles surround us everyday as we continue to Believe. Thank you Heather for all of your support and best wishes with your book. Love, Cynthia