As I write this, on July 5, 2010, it has been exactly 10 years since the night of the fire in which Andrea was burned. In some ways it seems so long ago, and in other ways just like yesterday. On this milestone my husband Lynn and I pause to reflect on all that has happened to us since that horrific detour, and we are thankful for our many blessings.
This time of year always brings sobering thoughts—sharp and painful memories of that life-changing fire, as well as concern for the approaching fire season in our arid West. During the past several decades, many regions have suffered terrible losses from wildfires (loss of forests, rangeland resources, private property, livestock, homes and human lives). Wildfires on public lands have increased in incidence and intensity, partly due to dry conditions during drought years, and also because of the build-up of dry fuel as logging operations have been shut down on most Forest Service lands and grazing uses have been reduced on public rangelands.
After the horrible fire season in 2000, our county suffered a number of devastating fires again in 2003. That summer was hot and dry—it was our 4th year of severe drought. The Tobias fire started in early July, a few miles up the valley from our ranch, burning thousands of acres of range and timber, miles of fences, and some cattle that were trapped in the fire. The Cramer fire later that month was even more tragic because it took the lives of 2 young firefighters. One of them was the son of good friends of ours. Our entire community was devastated.
Then on August 11, lightning started a fire on the mountain just above our cattle range on Withington Creek. Fire crews began trying to control it, dumping water by helicopter, and dropping fire retardant from big bomber planes. Strong winds kept the fire burning in spite of these efforts, and it continued to grow. Some of Michael and Carolyn’s cattle (our son and daughter-in-law) on our high range pasture were in danger, so Lynn helped get those rounded up and down to our lower ranch pastures. The 3 of them worked until midnight with horses, dogs and a pickup (using 2 way-radios for communication) to get the cattle out of that canyon to bring them down, but it got dark before they got them all. Andrea watched the flames from her side of the mountain, shooting more than 100 feet above the skyline. It brought back harsh memories.
At daylight the next morning, Michael, Carolyn and Lynn went back and gathered the cows and calves they’d missed in the dark the night before. There were still 120 cows on the Baker Creek side of the mountain, however, and we weren’t sure if they’d be safe. Michael and Carolyn spent the rest of that day on their horses on the ridge, with cell phone and radios, ready to let us know if Lynn should drive up that side of the mountain to start opening gates—if they had to bring those cattle home, too.
The Forest Service personnel told us the fire wouldn’t come down the mountain that direction, so for the next few days we just monitored what was happening. Michael had to get back to his haying jobs. Lynn spent a lot of time up the creek with the fire crews and helped them locate better places along the creek for their pumper trucks to get water--to haul to the tank they’d set up on the mountain—for the helicopters to dip from.
Firefighters kept the fire from spreading very much until 5 days later when strong winds took it toward town, threatening a housing subdivision. Those homes were quickly evacuated. Then the wind changed, saving the houses and bringing the fire back toward us. Fire crews in Withington Creek pulled out immediately. They got out of the danger area just minutes ahead of the raging fire, and evacuated the neighbors above us on the creek.
Earlier that morning the air had been calm and the fire seemed under control, so Michael and Carolyn had gone to their kids’ 4-H horse show at the Fairgrounds, 18 miles away. By afternoon, however, we realized the fire was coming toward our range again. A huge mushroom cloud of smoke spewed upward, 25,000 feet into the sky, easily visible above the top of the big hill above our house. I called Michael and Carolyn on their cell phone, and they left their kids, horses, and trailer in the care of friends, and rushed home.
Lynn hurried up the mountain in our old jeep, to start opening all the gates so the cattle could come down. Michael and Carolyn grabbed their other horses and galloped 2 miles up the road and then up through our 320-acre pasture to the high range. It’s a steep climb, but they didn’t spare the horses. Black smoke boiled up out of Withington Creek. The wind brought the fire roaring up out of the canyon to the top of the ridge, where it lapped over onto the Baker Creek side. Lynn began to worry more about being able to breathe than being burned up; the black smoke was thick and choking. The roar of the fire was incredible—like the sound of a dozen 747 airplanes all taking off at once.
He made it to the top of our range in the jeep, just ahead of the fire, and started shooshing cattle down our side. He took the jeep places no driver had ever dared go—honking and yelling—and parked it periodically to run after groups of cattle he couldn’e drive to. Michael and Carolyn soon got there and began gathering the cows below him. They had 2-way radios but could not hear one another because of a hill between them, but Lynn was higher on the mountain and could hear them both. He relayed their messages to one another, telling where different groups of cattle were located and where to go to find some they’d missed.
At home on my radio I heard snatches of their frantic conversation—Lynn yelling at Michael to tell him that the fire was coming up behind them, that they might have to make a run for it, and to leave the cow he was having trouble with (she was fighting the dog) and to go back over the hill where there were 30 head that he might have a chance to save.
Andrea called me on the phone, worried about what was happening up on the mountain and hoping they were all right. She knew first-hand what terrible danger they were in. I was also getting a lot of phone calls from friends and neighbors asking if they could help gather the cattle. I had to refuse their offers; there was no time. No one else could get there quickly enough with horses, and we also didn’t want to put anyone else at risk. Someone who didn’t know that range allotment could easily get lost and be in harm’s way.
Thanks to the radios, good horses (that were very fit and able to gallop continually in steep terrain), well-trained dogs, and great determination, Michael, Carolyn and Lynn rounded up most of the cattle in that rugged, timbered pasture in about 2 hours—an area that usually takes 2 days to gather them.
The fire was on the ridge right behind them as they brought their groups together and hustled them down the mountain. If they’d been just 15 minutes later they would have been cut off the by fire. Burning tree branches and embers rained down on them; Michael’s shirt was burned full of holes.
At one point it looked like they’d have to leave the cows and make a run for their lives, but a last-minute change in the wind (a miracle!) saved them, and saved our neighbor’s homes at the same time. The fire came within a few hundred yards of the first house, and stopped. The fire on the ridge blew back on itself and stopped, sparing the timber and grassland on the Baker Creek side.
Cows that were missed that day did not perish. Michael and Carolyn were able to gather most of them the next day, and the remaining few they didn’t find came down later on their own, through the gates we’d left open. The fire raged out of control in upper Withington Creek for several more days and spread southeast along the mountain range, burning 11,000 acres, but we were safe. We’d lost a lot of grass and several miles of fences, but we rejoiced because no one got hurt. It could have ended so differently!
As we struggled through that ordeal, we realized that even though the fire threatened our ranch and our livelihood, it was a walk in the park compared with a perilous trek through the burn center, or through the valley of death and the loss of a loved one. We realized that we can handle, with more grace than before, the curve balls life throws at us—because we are not as tightly bound by the things we thought were so important earlier. We can purchase hay to replace the lost grazing. We can replace cows. We can rebuild fences. The things we often tend to worry about or think of as devastating are not such a big deal. There was no better reminder of this than our friends’ loss of their son, and the near loss of our daughter 3 years earlier. Anything else is trivial.
The challenges that come along in life are good reminders that we are never really in control. Unexpected winds can blow us into strange territory. I am thankful that we had some lessons earlier in our journey, to know that no matter what happens, we are loved—and that our Guide will always see us through the storms.