Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch – Horrendous Fires, Part 4: Enduring the Smoke

Our daughter Andrea got back home July 18 after working on the Wyoming fire. She enjoyed meeting the firefighters and various crews at the fire camp. She appreciates their efforts in this difficult job, and they relate to her because of what she has been through as a burn survivor. The burn scars from the grafts on her arms and legs are obvious, and firefighters admire her grit and tenacity doing a hard physical job — pressure-washing all the firefighting vehicles — at the fire camps. Her unsinkable spirit, in spite of physical impairments, shines through.

Andrea doesn’t let her physical impairments or
burn scars hold her back or keep her from doing
difficult jobs. This photo was taken at fire camp.

When she got home, she enjoyed being with her kids. We all went on a few rides on the low range pasture. She also took the kids to their swimming lessons and helped us with haying. One morning she and I rode for several hours to search for one of our son’s big yearling steers that had gotten out on the range and brought him back to the home pasture.

We all went on a few rides on the low range pasture;
here are my three granddaughters (ages 7, 9, and 14) riding with us.

Then our weather turned hot (95 degrees and higher) and stayed that way the rest of the summer. We had a few lightning storms but very little rain. Conditions were perfect for fire. Smoke from several fires in Idaho and Montana invaded our valley.

In August Andrea helped on the Halstead fire near Stanley, Idaho, about a 3-hour drive from our ranch. Once again it was a situation where a small fire that might have been halted in the first days suddenly became a large one because of the hot windy weather and the dead and dying trees in that forest. The mushrooming fire was soon threatening homes along the highway, and more than six hundred people were working to contain it on that front. The Halstead fire eventually grew to more than 180,000 acres by October, when containment efforts finally began to halt its progress.

In August Andrea helped on the Halstead fire near Stanley, Idaho,
where once again she was on the weed-wash team, pressure-washing
all the vehicles that came and went from the fire.

The mushrooming fire "blew up" again in late August
and threatened homes along the highway.

Meanwhile, a fire much closer to home impacted Lemhi County residents. The Mustang fire north of Salmon was originally a small blaze caused by lightning during the last weekend in July. It had burned about 100 acres by August 2, and no efforts were made to put it out at that time, since it was in a remote area. Then it grew rapidly and merged with several other fires in that area — and stranded two hundred boaters on the Salmon River for several days until they could be rescued. The fire forced closure of the only road out of the Middle Fork area where the rafters were stranded.

A few weeks later, by September 4, the Mustang Complex fire had grown to 241,701 acres in spite of extensive crews brought in to fight it. At that point the fire was less than 3 miles from the highway.

The Halstead fire made another run at the homes and highway on September 4.

By mid-August the expanding blaze had forced evacuation of residents along Spring Creek and Colson Creek — and soon threatened homes and ranches along Highway 93, including the small communities of North Fork and Gibbonsville. Many people were forced to leave their homes. Dense smoke made visibility so poor at times that traffic on the highway was curtailed, with use of pilot cars.

The fire burned north into Montana and at one point was joined by another major Montana fire, upping the total size to more than 300,000 acres burned. For a while more than 1,100 firefighters were assigned to the Mustang Complex fire. More than 90 fire engines and equipment were brought in from all over Idaho and beyond, in efforts to keep the fire from reaching the homes along the highway. Seven people were injured fighting this fire, but at this writing no one has lost his or her life, and we are thankful for that.

Air quality in our valley was off the charts for 2 months. Many residents suffered breathing problems and medical issues, including asthma and pneumonia. The stress and depression for those who had to stay indoors also became an issue. Those of us who have to work outside found it difficult to do tasks requiring physical exertion. Here at the ranch I no longer took the grandkids outdoors with me to do chores or ride, especially since they have allergies and asthma and had to use their prescribed inhalers periodically. The smoke had all of us congested and coughing. Health-care officials in town distributed breathing masks to people at risk.

The air quality was at the worst level for many weeks.
This photo was taken by a friend at her place.
The smoke completely obscured the mountains beyond the fields.

One of our friends on a ranch at North Fork didn’t want to be evacuated and was allowed to stay and protect his home and haystack (tarping his hay and keeping it and his house watered with sprinklers to protect against the live sparks that blew in from the approaching fire). The air quality was so bad he had to use an air purifier in his bedroom to sleep at night.

He worried about the cattle still missing in the mountains behind his house—some of which were later found dead or with severe burn injuries. One bull attempted to get away from the fire and made it to a big spring in a deep draw. But that small oasis was no protection and that’s where his body was found—in the boggy water. The fire took a big toll on cattle that were not rounded up and brought home ahead of the fire, and it’s hard to say how many other animals perished. Wildlife numbers are the unknown statistics of loss and waste in the wake of a big fire.

Everyone in our valley is looking forward to the cooler days of winter and hoping for rain or snow! A short reprieve materialized September 24 and 25, with a little bit of rain that cleared the air enough so we could actually see the mountains again and breathe easier, but it wasn’t enough to slow down the fires. By then the Mustang fire had burned more than 340,000 acres and was about 30 percent contained. Several times strong winds took burning embers across the highway to start new fires, but quick action by the firefighters got those halted before they could take off into new territory in that direction.

By mid-October we’d had a few more clear days, but the smoke was thick again for a while, with no appreciable rain yet. The Mustang fire was still burning and was only about 60 percent contained.

In many places everything was completely burned, and
wildlife didn't have much chance to get away from the fire.
 Here a friend checks through the ashes and debris.

In our small rural community this will be a summer long remembered for its many challenges.

[to be continued]

Read Part One: A Personal Journey
Read Part Two: The 2003 Fire
Read Part Three: Early Summer 2012

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.

No comments: