Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Horrendous Fires, Part Two: The 2003 Fire

The summer of 2003 was hot and dry, our fourth year of severe drought. Once again we had a bad year for fires. The Tobias fire started early in July, a few miles up the valley from our ranch, burning thousands of acres of range and timber before it could be halted. The Cramer fire, at the other side of the county, also required extensive efforts from Forest Service and interagency fire crews. It took the lives of two young firefighters on July 22 (one was the son of friends of ours), and our community was devastated. We ached in sorrow for their loss and continue to keep their families in our prayers.

Then on August 11 lightning started a fire on the mountain just above our cattle range. Fire crews began working on it, dumping water by helicopter and fire retardant from big bomber planes, but strong winds kept it burning aggressively, and it continued to grow.

Fire crews worked for several days trying to control the fire on the 
mountain, the helicopters dipping water from containers filled by pumper trucks.

Some of our son and daughter-in-law’s cattle on our high range pasture (the cattle in Withington Creek) were in danger, so my husband Lynn helped them try to get those rounded up. They worked until midnight with horses, dogs, and a pickup (with the help of two-way radios), trying to get cows out of that canyon to bring them down to one of our upper ranch pastures, but it got dark before they got them all. Our daughter Andrea and her husband watched the flames from their side of the mountain — shooting more than 100 feet above the skyline. It brought back harsh memories of the fire 3 years earlier that nearly took Andrea’s life.

At daylight next morning our son Michael, his wife Carolyn, and Lynn went back and got the cows they’d missed. 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 the day on their horses on the ridge (with cell phone and two-way 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.

Firefighters kept the fire from spreading much, until 5 days later, when strong winds took the flames toward town, threatening a housing subdivision (which was quickly evacuated). Then the wind changed, saving the subdivision and bringing the fire back our way. Fire crews in Withington Creek pulled out immediately and hurried down off the mountain. They got out just ahead of the fire — and evacuated the neighbors above us.

Earlier that morning the air was calm, and the fire wasn’t growing much, so Michael and Carolyn had gone to their kids’ 4-H horse show at the fairgrounds, 16 miles away from our ranch. By afternoon we realized the fire was coming toward our range again. Lynn had driven up the creek to check on our upper place and met the fire crews, pumper trucks, and all the other fire equipment coming down. A huge mushroom cloud of smoke was billowing 25,000 feet into the air and could be seen above the canyon rim from our house several miles farther down the creek. I called Michael and Carolyn on their cell phone. They left their kids, horses, and trailer in the care of friends and rushed home.

A huge mushroom cloud of smoke suddenly appeared,
billowing up behind the hill beyond our house.

Lynn drove swiftly up the mountain in our jeep (through rough terrain we’d never tried to drive over before), to start opening all the range gates so the cattle could come down. Michael and Carolyn grabbed some horses from their place and galloped 2 miles up the road and through our 320-acre upper mountain 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 up to the ridge, where it lapped over the top onto the Baker Creek side. Lynn made it to the top of the ridge in our jeep — just ahead of the fire — and started shooshing cattle down our side, where Michael and Carolyn were gathering other cows. They had their radios but with a big hill between them could not hear one another. Lynn, however, was higher on the mountain and could hear them both; he relayed their messages to one another and told them where other groups of cows were located. From his vantage point he could see some of the pockets and draws that they could not see.

At home I paced the barnyard, watching the smoke billowing on the horizon. On my radio I heard snatches of frantic conversation, Lynn yelling at Michael that the fire was coming up behind them, that they might have to make a run for it, telling Michael to leave a cow he was having trouble with and go back over the hill where there were 30 he might have a chance to save. Thanks to radios, good horses and dogs, and great determination, they rounded up most of the cattle in 2 hours — out of rugged country that usually takes 2 days to gather.

The fire was on the ridge behind them as they brought all the little groups together and hustled them down the mountain. If they’d been 15 minutes later, they would have been cut off by the fire. Burning tree branches and embers peppered them; Michael’s shirt was burned full of holes.

A last-minute change in the wind saved them and saved our neighbors' homes in the creek canyon downstream. As the fire crested the ridge and lapped over onto the Baker Creek side, the wind suddenly changed and blew the fire back on itself, and it didn’t come any farther. Only a few smoldering areas were left burning on the ridge — which we put out the next day with many gallons of water hauled up in our jeep.

The ridge where the wind changed and the fire stopped

Cows that were missed did not perish; Michael and Carolyn were able to gather most of them the next day, and a few came down on their own through gates Lynn had left open. The fire raged out of control in the opposite direction on Forest Service lands for several more days, burning nearly 11,000 acres and killing some of our range neighbor’s cattle — but all the people were safe. We lost a lot of grass and fences but rejoiced, because no one got hurt. It could have ended so differently!

This is the ridge that Lynn, Michael and Carolyn were trying to bring the cows 
down when the fire nearly engulfed them — until the wind changed. I took 
photo a few days later when a friend and I rode up there to check on the fire damage.

As we struggled through that ordeal, we realized that even though it threatened our ranch and our livelihood, it was a walk in the park compared with a trek through the burn center, or through the valley of death and loss of a loved one. We can handle, with more grace than before, the curve balls life throws at us now, because we are not as bound and chained by things we thought were so important before.

Survivors. This small group of our neighbor’s cattle took refuge in a small area
the fire skipped over. Several of them had burns, and the calves had 
burned feet from walking through hot coals. Here they rest and wait for rescue.

We could borrow money to buy hay to replace the lost grazing. We could replace cows. We could rebuild fences. Those were small things in comparison to what we might have lost. I am still a worrier and often have to remind myself that the things I tend to worry about are not such a big deal. There is no better reminder than our friends' loss of their son that year and the earlier near loss of our daughter. Anything less is pretty trivial.

This was a grass-covered hillside with a nice stand of timber and a fence
dividing the Forest Range (above) from our BLM range in the foreground.
 After that devastating afternoon it was all gone — the topsoil in some places burned
clear down to the rocks beneath. The fence is barely visible — almost totally burned up.

[Part Three will look at the terrible fires this summer of 2012.]

Read Part One: A Personal Journey

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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