Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Horrendous Fires, Part One: A Personal Journey

This summer’s drought and fires across the West bring back sharp memories of past years’ fires and tragedies. Our family is very sensitive to the issue of range and forest fires, having firsthand experience regarding the devastation that can result.

As ranchers who depend on public rangeland for summer grazing (a BLM permit our ranch has utilized ever since the BLM came into existence in 1946 — Taylor Grazing and open range before that), we’ve always been highly aware of fire danger in dry summers. A lightning-caused grass fire on one of our range pastures 18 years ago burned a few acres but halted at a well-beaten cattle trail and a well-grazed area. We and the BLM were able to put it out easily before it went on up the mountain and into the timber.

Some of the fires in recent years have been harder to put out, especially in heavy grass and shrub country that is no longer being grazed and in thick timbered areas where logging has been prohibited for several decades. Some of these fires are impossible to control and burn hundreds of thousands of acres before winter snows finally halt them.

Fires in recent years have been harder to put out. Many fires in
area have been difficult to control and have burned many acres.

Our personal experience with fire began 12 years ago. The summer of 2000 was very dry across the West, resulting in many destructive wildfires. Idaho and Montana were especially hard hit. The Clear Creek fire in the wilderness area near Salmon, Idaho (not far from our ranch), eventually burned more than 200,000 acres and was the largest fire in the complex of hundreds of fires that ravaged the West that summer. It was the largest fire in the continental United States that year. The Clear Creek fire and several smaller fires around us kept our valley immersed in thick smoke for most of 2 months. The dry summer, combined with a large buildup of fuel (dead trees and dry grass, due to many years of no logging or grazing in some of these areas), set the stage for catastrophic fires. A lightning strike in the wilderness area started the Clear Creek fire, which quickly spread through wilderness and nonwilderness lands.

High winds, which blew every afternoon, along with weather created by the fire itself, made conditions hazardous for firefighters, especially when the fire traveled long distances in a short time, burning several thousand acres in a few hours. Usually, the strong winds die down after sunset, slowing the fire's progress, but when firestorms occur, the wind keeps blowing, created by the fire's own air currents.

Thousands of acres of forest, rangeland, and private land were burned, in several western states. Countless numbers of wildlife perished. Cattle and people had to be evacuated from some areas. Much private property was destroyed, and many head of livestock were lost in the fires.

The fires have destroyed countless numbers of wildlife. Here's a survivor,
gingerly picking her way through hot ashes and smoldering coals.

Fires burned more than 7.4 million acres across the West that summer. This was equivalent to a strip 5 miles wide from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, with enough timber destroyed to have built 100,000 new homes. Loss of property (homes and outbuildings, fences, crops, and livestock) was enormous, wiping out some families' livelihoods completely and demolishing what many people had spent a lifetime building. The human toll was high as well; more than 20 people lost their lives, and many others suffered injuries.

My husband Lynn and I nearly lost our daughter that summer. 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 hot, dry summer. The wind changed and brought the fire over them while they were on a crawler tractor trying to make a fire line. Andrea jumped off and ran through a wall of 20-foot-high flames to get out of the fire, then had to struggle 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.

The Twelve-Mile Fire, where Andrea was burned that night; she
jumped off the crawler and had to run through 20-foot-high flames.

She clung to life by sheer determination, unwilling to give up because there was still so much she wanted to live for, and she didn’t want to leave her 2-year-old daughter 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 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.

Six weeks after her burn injuries, Andrea was finally physically
strong enough that the doctors allowed us to bring young Emily
to the hospital in Salt Lake to see her mama for the first time.

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.

Emily helping her mom with physical therapy while Andrea was 
still in the hospital in Salt Lake — first steps in a pilgrimage for our
entire family that led us on an unexpected path that taught us
more about love, patience, 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 12 years later) with people whose paths crossed ours that summer, many of 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, as either a burn 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 was no way we could ever really thank the many people who helped us. So a year after Andrea’s accident, I finally got up the courage to start writing a 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 interested in this topic. It was a frustrating challenge, but one thing we’d learned from our epic journey through the burn center and beyond 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.

[to be continued — Part Two will look at the next fire that came too close to home, in 2003]

More about the book, and our lives since, can be found at www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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