On September 9, John Marble’s short voice mail on my home phone said, “We have fire on three sides and we’re evacuating cattle.” He was running from the Holiday Farm fire that had been whipped into a frenzy by gale force winds two days earlier. By the next day, his part of the Calapooia Valley was at Level 3 Evac – Run for your lives. He took a moment for a short call to let us know he and Cris were leaving their house with the cats and dog and what worldly possessions they could load in such a short time and space. He said that, with the fire just miles away and no let up in the weather, they expected everything to burn.
The Holiday Farm fire ultimately grew to 173,393 acres. One person died, 431 residences were lost, and the town of Blue River was burned to the ground. But John and Cris were fortunate. The wind changed, the fire slowed, and ultimately they and their livestock were able to return home.
John and I have a lot of experience with fire, John as a volunteer firefighter for his local fire department, and I as a Fire Information Officer for the Bureau of Land Management. Over the last few weeks we’ve talked a lot about fire – causes, prevention, management, and how readers might best prepare. We’ll cover some of that in the future, but for now, John is sharing some of his experience.
When the Fire Came
September of 2020 turned out to be the most challenging month of my entire life here on the ranch. It could have been worse. It almost was.
The country I live in is low-elevation farm and grazing land that exists somewhere between Marine and Mediterranean on the climate scale. Lately it’s been trending more toward the latter, getting a bit hotter and dryer each year. There are thousands of square miles of highly productive conifer forest just uphill from us. One thing about a hot, dry forest: when it catches fire, well, you probably want to step back.
Fires in the high country are not unusual around here. Lightning storms frequently come through in late summer and start a few little fires. We also get quite a few “human-caused” fires. Some of these are purely innocent, things like a spark or a backfire from a machine. Others are less benign: campfires, fireworks, cigarettes tossed into the brush. On occasion, there is actual arson involved. Usually, these little fires don’t amount to much. Various agencies send crews to extinguish the fire, or we get some rain, or sometimes the decision is made to just let the fires burn themselves out. Many of these fires start in places where you cannot simply drive up the mountain and spray some water on the flames.
On the evening of September 7th, a tremendous wind storm blew in from the east, bringing sixty mile per hour winds and hot, dry, desert air. Almost immediately, our entire region blew up into a dozen or more serious fires. There were thousands of smaller fires too. Most of these fires were caused by trees and branches contacting power lines. In a very short time there were massive fires burning to the north and south of us, with every fire agency fully engaged. My own local department responded to over thirty calls that first night, and for the next week or so we were busy with all kinds of fire emergencies, including a dozen arson-related fires. Seems like when things get bad, some people just lose their grip on reality.
It wasn’t all bad. I got to see people perform at a very high level. I saw people helping their neighbors. Farmers and loggers showed up with fire-fighting equipment. There was no official call for help, people just showed up. No one slept much that first few days, and most people began packing, “Just in case”. A large portion of our County was at some stage of emergency:
Level I: Get Ready
Level II: Get Set
Level III: Run for your life.
By the time my little valley reached Level III (mandatory evacuation) we had been getting ready to run for a couple of days. In fact, the day after the big wind storm, I made a few phone calls and received extremely heartening replies:
“Don’t worry. We will come and get your cattle. How many trailers should we bring?”
And it wasn’t just that. As things got worse, I began fielding calls from people who offered shelter and food for livestock, places to sleep, trucks, trailers, bull dozers…you name it, people were just terribly willing to help. When it looked as though we might actually get completely over run – everything gone – one old friend called to offer a house for us to use as a remote headquarters: “You just move in and stay there as long as you want”. In the end, we were able to camp in a very luxurious “barn” (with bathrooms, running water, electricity) that some close friends rent for weddings. This was just six miles from home, which allowed me to respond to my fire station during the conflagration.
I made the decision to evacuate the cattle just as the Level III was being put into place. All of the secondary roads were being closed to prevent looting and encourage people to leave their homes, but we were allowed access to retrieve the cattle. A fleet of gooseneck trailers showed up at each ranch, each of them manned by top-notch stock handlers. In the end, all of our cattle were loaded and moved away to safety in just over two hours. There was no fooling around.
The next week or so is kind of a blur. My extended family joined us at the Refugee Barn, turning that into a bit of a family campout. Dogs and cats came along too. We cooked on camp stoves, but having refrigerators and plumbing made for pretty soft living. I simply got up every day and put on my yellow fire clothes, went to my station and waited for the next fire call. I didn’t have to worry about the cattle as they were being cared for by our friends. There wasn’t much to do about any of the properties, as the fire was either coming over that last ridge, or it wasn’t. Our “last stand” was proposed to be a small two-lane county road that would have left half of our holdings in the Black Zone. And that assumes we would have actually been able to stop the fire there. Looking back, this was probably not realistic. If the fire reached that road it most likely would have continued west toward the Interstate highway.
A week or so later all of our cattle were loaded up and brought home, back to the same pastures we had evacuated them from. During the fires we lost one old mother cow, probably to the stress of smoke and transport. We had no loss of property or life, but I did sprout a few new gray hairs. One difficulty I ran into was with settling up for the cost of gathering, shipping, feeding and returning all of those cattle. No one involved in the process would accept any money. As one fellow told me,
“It’s not like you asked for any of these troubles.”
When it was all over my wife and I paused for a few minutes on the deck at a house that has a commanding view of the valley. We talked about what we would have done if the entire place had been burned to the ground: buildings, fences, waterlines, pastures…everything gone. Would we re-build? Yes. Would we build it back exactly as it was before? Not likely; I would like to think we’ve learned some things along the way. Honestly, the most painful loss would have been the young stands of timber, trees that we planted over thirty years ago. We could re-plant, of course, but those decades of work and growth would simply be gone with the smoke.
One other thought was the recognition that when the next fire comes, we will be ready to share our grass with whomever needs it. And all that extra hay, well, maybe someone will need some of that, too.
A month later, some of this seems like stories from years ago. We’re back to normal, sort of, but I frequently find myself watching the sky and sniffing for smoke. And I think about all of the people I need to call and thank one more time for coming to help us during a terribly difficult time.
One final piece of advice: be thankful for the friends you have. If you don’t have friends, work hard to find some. Take care of those relationships. Someone might need your help one day.
Happy to be back home and grazing!