Thursday, July 28, 2011

Six Million Dollar Campfire

Sunday, June 12th, started like most other Sundays with a more leisurely breakfast than our normal weekday ones as we discussed our plans for the day. Afterwards, I headed out for a morning of noxious weed work while Don spent some time in the orchard watering, fertilizing and mowing the grass. After lunch we worked around the house in the gardens and enjoyed a little time on the back porch with tea. Around 3:30 in the afternoon the phone rang with a recorded message from the Sheriff’s office that a fire had started in the Duckett Creek area about 3 miles northwest of our place. Due to the very dry conditions and strong winds, the fire was spreading quickly and the call advised us we were under an evacuation alert. We might have to evacuate with no more than 2 hours notice.

Due to the terrain and forest, we couldn’t initially see the fire so we headed down the road for a better view. The smoke was already rising into the sky and the fire was leaping from one tree to another (known as “crowning” in forest fire language). And the dry winds were blowing hard. We hadn’t had any lightning so speculation ran high that the fire was human caused. The Duckett Creek area is on National Forest Service land and in the vicinity of heavily used campgrounds.

Back at home we started thinking about what we might need to do if we had to evacuate. Most importantly we needed to plan how to get our animals out and what we would need if we were away from home for a while. We started gathering up pet carriers and supplies, rounded up feed and care supplies for Mandy, our 26 year old mare, and started organizing clothes and food for ourselves. Eighteen years ago a fire started in the same area but only consumed 500 acres before the weather conditions and fire fighters gained the upper hand and contained it. We figured the same would happen again. Before dark we drove over closer to the fire to get a better sense of what was going on and felt comfortable that it was not spreading too rapidly and was doing what most fires do in the evening – “laying down” for the night due to increased humidity and decreased winds.

Monday morning started back with strong winds and dry conditions and the fire ramped up as the day went along. A friend who lives about 3 miles away emailed that he was leaving for Argentina for a month and we were welcome at his ranch if we needed to evacuate. Even though I didn’t think it would be necessary it was reassuring to know that we had a place to go if necessary. We spent the day removing artwork from the walls, wrapping the paintings up in blankets and started loading one of our trucks with our treasured and important possessions. We continued to evaluate what else we might need and kept an eye on the growing fire.

I had a much more un-settling feeling on Tuesday. The smoke from the fire was laying heavily over the entire valley and new areas of the forest were exploding into flames. The winds were so erratic that the fire was spreading in every direction. The fire was upgraded to a Type II and 400 fire fighters were on the scene. Each of the three helicopters were dropping 600 gallons of water per run on major fire spots and 2 slurry bombers were laying down fire retardant along fire lines and ridges in an effort to contain the northern and southern boundaries of the fire. The southern boundary had advanced to within a mile of our place. At 4:30 Tuesday afternoon the fire over ran the southern containment line. We were at the barn taking care of our mare when our neighbor drove up and told us we were now under evacuation orders – it was time to get out. While we were hitching up our horse trailer, the owner of the heifers that graze on our pasture for the summer arrived with his trailer to evacuate his cattle. Suddenly the helicopters were flying directly over the barn at tree-top level, fire trucks were racing up the county road past our place and embers and charred leaves were landing in the grass around the barn. Our poor mare was so un-nerved by the chaos that she refused to get in the horse trailer. We made the quick decision that Don needed to walk her out to safety while I drove the truck and trailer out.

I left the big truck and trailer on the county road at the top of our house driveway and ran down the drive to the house to get the other truck. I needed to figure out how to get our kitties and the rest of our gear plus two trucks and the trailer out by myself. I realized there was a group of firefighters down the road about 3/4 of a mile so I drove the small truck down there and borrowed a fire fighter. Jessie came back up with me. I loaded kitties in their carriers and started moving everything out to the front porch. Jessie loaded all the kitties and gear while I closed down our two laptop computers and put them in the carrying cases. Since this is way we make our living, the computers needed to go too. In 10 minutes Jessie and I had everything loaded up and we headed out. It was a sickening sight in the rear view mirror to see the smoke and flames approaching.

In the meantime, Don and Mandy (our mare), made it 1 3/4 miles to a neighboring ranch corrals that seemed safe for the evening. I caught up with Don as he was getting a ride back. We headed over to our friend’s ranch to get the kitties settled in, then back to Mandy’s corral to make sure she was comfortable with food and water for the evening. We finally got something to eat around 10PM thanks to the Bonnie, the ranch manager and general super-nice person.

Wednesday was an antagonizing day as the winds continued and the fire advanced in all directions. The fire fighting crew was up to 600 people and the air assault continued from dawn to dusk. I tried to distract myself by getting our computers back up and running, using the wireless internet system at the ranch house. At least we could get back to work. Mid-morning we talked the local deputy manning the road block leading to our area to allow us to return for more items from the house and barn. We were escorted by a fire crew who spent the 15 minutes it took us to gather up what we needed, by clearing debris from around our house, sheds and old cabin.

Thursday’s winds from the southwest pushed the fire to the north, away from us and gave the fire fighters a chance to re-enforce the southern boundary. Another couple and their two large dogs arrived at the ranch house – evacuated from the northern end of the fire. Smoke continued to blanket the valley.

On Friday it seemed as though the tide was turning in our favor. The air and ground assault of the fire was working and the winds were moderating. Most of the fire growth was at the northern fire boundary. It was the first day I started to feel as though our home and place might survive.

After two weeks of “Red Flag Warnings” issued by the National Weather Service, the weekend weather conditions improved dramatically as the winds decreased and the humidity levels increased. It was so encouraging to see moisture on the windshields Saturday morning. It even snowed lightly on the high peaks Saturday night, though the snow did not reach down to the fire.

Sunday evening we received the news we had hoped for – we could return home Monday morning. We would remain on evacuation alert as the fire was only 65% contained but we could go home.

The following weekend, the hot dry winds returned and the fire grew on several fronts. Monday morning we received another recorded call from the sheriff’s office – dangerous fire conditions were occurring again and we needed to prepare to evacuate. We remained on evacuation alert, though home, for another week before the fire fighters aided by the weather, again gained control of the fire.

Even now, six weeks after it started, the fire is only 80% contained. The rugged terrain and high elevation on the western boundary makes it impossible to put it out completely. Not until we receive significant monsoonal rains or winter snow, will the fire end. For now, a small fire crew remains on site working on hot spots and starting the long process of rehabilitation.

Investigators have discovered that the fire began from an illegal campfire started and left on Forest Service land. At the time (and it continues today) we are under strict fire restrictions – no open fires, yet some self-centered person thought that didn’t apply to them. Not only did the restrictions not apply to them but they couldn’t be bothered to put out the fire when they were done with it. Instead they left a burning campfire in a tinder-dry forest that resulted in a 5000 acre fire that threatened 200 homes, burned hundreds of acres of privately-owned forest lands, displaced many people and to date, has cost nearly $6 million dollars to fight.

But as we look back on these past six weeks, we are reminded of how wonderful our little community truly is. So many people called us in the days leading up to our evacuation to check on us and to offer help. Friends rushed to hug us after we evacuated when they learned we were OK. And of course the wonderful friends who offered their home to us and our kitties – there are no words to describe our appreciation.

Since we moved to this place more than 10 years ago, I have always felt safe and protected. The fire changed that. I now realize that we can be threatened by circumstances outside of our control and that no place will ever be completely safe. But I still gain comfort from being here and in this community and that counts for a lot.

From Fleur Creek Farm

1 comment:

  1. Having lived in Southern California for a decade, I totally understand the feelings you must have had as you packed up, left and then waited to hear the news. It's a very unsettling as you sit and watch the fire creep closer and closer. I'm glad to hear you are all safe at least.