3:45AM September 8th – suddenly the wind stopped like a switch was turned off. Sometimes it will appear just the same. It does that here a lot when storms come or go.
The sky glowed all night. We kept night-watch through the night and eventually dozed for a bit between the two of us. Possibly about an hours’ worth of sleep overall. We had no idea what to expect over the night. How would you evacuate cattle and critters in the dark? It would not be easy, and we hoped and prayed for the fire to not be in any rush to get here, especially in the middle of night. But, thankfully, the wind ceased which would possibly give us some time to do what we would need to do. Maybe they will fly planes with retardant or get crews to where they needed in the morning.
Morning revealed clouds of smoke still to the northwest so a decision was made to call into work and tell them I would not be in due to the very real threat and possibility that we would have to evacuate. All hands would be needed to handle the animals and do what needed to be done to protect the outbuildings, house and the immediate area around these structures from fire or embers.
We still had our daily chores to do this morning. We also reviewed what we had packed to be sure we had what was needed (it is amazing as to what you find out you didn’t pack, but should have, after the fact!). We searched for any news of the fire’s behavior or where it exactly was and if there were any updates to the evacuation orders. We knew it was a fast moving fire from the deputy who came to the house last night. He said it had traveled several miles in a few hours. We were also concerned about our friends who own livestock and property in other areas that were under the evacuation orders, too. We were helpless in offering them any assistance or a safe place for their livestock because we were all in the same boat. The only aircraft we’d seen flying this morning was a helicopter that was most likely assessing the fire.
As we started onto making lunch we received a phone call from our neighbor and friend who was helping out another neighbor down the highway saying that the fire was about 4 miles long, hopped through one of the canyons that is about 6 miles from us as the crow flies and was heading our direction. The winds were driving it straight towards us. We had only a breeze at that time but 20 minutes later the high winds began to blow.
A game plan was soon put into action. The bull battery was loaded up – two trailer trips to haul and offload them at our friends’ property that would be able to handle them. They have bull-proof pens. They would be the most difficult to move and Keith & our daughter would take care of that. Two year old bulls, frolicking about and pushing and shoving each other because they can would not be fun to try to accomplish in the middle of a fire. But the bulls must’ve realized they meant business and piled into the trailer.
As they handled moving the bulls, the boys & I tackled the yard immediately about the house removing any and all dead grass, potted plants, lawn chairs… anything that could catch embers. The shade screen was pulled from the greenhouse roof and stuff removed from around it, too. Anything that could burn we tossed in the middle of the irrigated part of the garden. Not in a pile, but scattered about. We watered down around the edges of the house and washed off any cobwebs. Anything that could catch on fire that was near any outbuilding or the house was removed farther away from said structure or stored into one of the enclosed outbuildings. All electric fence, posts and netting were set into the quad wagon to be towed. The fence chargers were all put in a vehicle. The few hay bales we had for the small livestock and Gus were all moved out into the lane away from the barn. It’s mostly dirt and may be spared but it was also away from the old wooden barn and outbuildings.
Once the bulls were gone, the stocktrailer was dropped and the travel trailer hooked up to the pickup. The van, loaded the night before, was readied with a kennel in the very back of it for the two dogs. The smaller pet crates had been set out the night before for the cats and kittens. Winky (the 18 year old cat – he came with the property) and Liza were grabbed and shoved in a crate and put in the car. Three of the kittens were put in another. The two wild kittens and two mamas were on their own. They were not to be found. Nor was Opal, the calico. But I had a cardboard pet carrier ready for her in case she showed up.
At the same time, Keith set out with the dozer and started cutting a firebreak across the hayfield along the fenceline to protect the barn, granary and the house compound area. If the granary would have caught on fire, it would set off the barn and any embers from that could possibly put the other structures in the house compound area at risk. And the firebreak along the west portion of the hayfield next to the barn would create a larger defensible space between the hayfield and the other pasture across the lane. It could also possibly protect it from crossing through and on towards town or the neighbors to the south of us.
As Keith ran the dozer with the brush rake across the field, the rest of us started on the poultry and small livestock. Chickens were bribed into their coop so we could capture them to put them in a smaller coop. Turkeys were already in their pen, as were the goats. L the sheep was wandering about the yard because she was in the hayfield and we didn’t want to have to chase her down out in the field. She’s not halter-broke. Coops and wire kennels were strategically placed in the front half of the trailer.
With the poultry accommodations set up in the stocktrailer the big coop chickens were put in the garden chickens little coop near the front of the trailer. Then the dog crates with bottom trays were stacked on top of each other for the goose, garden chickens, Gobbler the tom turkey had his own pen (he fights with Goblin… it is still breeding season in their minds and he’s a big boy), all the other turkeys were in a large dog kennel, poultry netting, food/waterers, and a portable pen. All stacked inside.
With the divider door closed, now the back half of the stocktrailer was ready for the goats & L the sheep. Hay and their feed tubs were set. Maggie the nubian goat was led to the trailer on a lead rope then she balked at going in. The other goats scattered, but with her being pushed into the trailer and tied into it the other ones eventually went in…. grain worked, too. Good thing goats are greedy little buggers! Just as we got the greedy goats in the trailer, it was at this point the fire crested the east hill. And then the urgency became more pressed.
We called our friends again asking if they would be able to come get the stock trailer and take it to their place. Yes, but they would have to grab and go because they needed their stocktrailer back on their pickup if they had to grab livestock from their other property down the highway. Gus was saddled. Boys & I gathered up goat fence and put it with the other fencing.
Now to handle the matter of L the sheep. She is not halter broke and she did NOT want to go to the trailer. We ended up half dragging her and pushing her, and all the while she was sure we were killing her in the process. I was kind of thinking it was true but she was going into that trailer. Our friend soon arrived, as did a couple of deputies to tell us to evacuate… now….just as we got L to the trailer. We said we were working on it. We thought we’d be able to get the gate swung open a crack to get L in, but the greedy goats had other plans. So the slide gate was opened, I backed in, goats were sure they were in deep trouble and went to a corner, staying long enough to get L into the trailer. Slide gate closed and away they went. Deputies said they’d be back.
Keith was done and set the dozer in its spot in the yard. And all the while we could see fire burning in strips, burning into itself and as fast as it flared up it disappeared. We stayed by the metal buildings and watched to see where it was going, where we would go with the cows and vehicles and be on watch for any embers.
Then as we stood there watching the fire burn about the outskirts of the property, Kiki the old chicken appeared out of nowhere. She was grabbed, shoved into the cardboard box that was reserved for Opal the calico and put in the back of the van. A few minutes later, one of the boys said Kiki was in the car. Yes, I know Kiki is in the car. No…. she is IN the car. Hmmm…. time to investigate what the problem was and, yes, she was in the car… she was LOOSE in the car because the bad dog(s) – I know which one – had scratched a hole in the side of the box, she flew out and was now sitting in the side window. Nice…. back in the box, the box set on the passenger floor and guarded from getting out again by the back of the seat and a well seated boy to keep it there with his foot.
Cat, the border collie, was tucked down on the floor in the front seat by boy #2’s feet as they were waiting to see what was the next move. Cows all stood around in a group in the field next to the house watching and waiting, as we were, too.
What was strange was that though it was all fueled by high winds and tinder dry fuels, there was very little ash blowing around. And because we are surrounded by mostly grass, grazed grass, there was very little to burn hot. It was our defensible space as compared to the perimeter areas that had sagebrush and dense brush/trees which burned the hottest. We knew it would someday burn either like this day, or by lightening strike, but it was going to burn. We had planned on removing more of the fuels in the future as time permitted. That is why we cut up all the downed, dead trees on the property to use for firewood. Remove the fuel buildup. It also removes the damaging insects and opportunities for disease to infest healthy trees.
But as fast as the fire appeared, it went away about as quick. It burned in strips and sections. Some places it burned into itself. Flames would erupt like being let out of a furnace, and disappear as if the furnace door was closed. We’d seen smoke billow up over by the main road, then in another place see flames. We weren’t really scared, but we were very cautious as to what we needed to do to protect ourselves and the cows with their calves. They would be much easier to push either back into the black where it burned or down the road away from the direction the fire. The cows didn’t seem afraid either. They just stood around in a loose cluster with a watchful eye and then when it blew through, the smoke lifting, soon began to wander about the field and eat. I guess they felt the danger had passed.
It’s hard to explain but I can still see it in my minds’ eye the events unfolding.
After it burned through, we walked around the immediate compound area to see what posts, spot fires or small trees were smouldering close by. The 4-wheeler was loaded up with the spray tank and filled with water to douse any trouble spots. We even had a visit from a couple of Hotshots who were on the backside of SW corner and came in to check on us. There were a couple of places where the fire crept close along the ground right into the firebreak that was cut with the dozer. It must have been very small flame because we never saw it coming into the field. And we never saw an engine or crew for support, except for the two Hotshots after the fire blew through. If we had not cut that firebreak the story would have ended up differently with lost structures on our property. Even they said that the dozer line saved the structures and kept it from going south. There was no one else to aid in protection. Those resources went elsewhere. A volunteer fire chief came by to see if we were okay and that the danger was not really over. He was apologetic after he found out that we did not have any help with structure protection. It wasn’t his fault. Most of the west was on fire and resources stretched thin.
As the fire burned through the night away from us it was still burning around us on three sides. It burned private and federal lands. It jumped the road and crossed the creek. It was still too soon to think it was all over, there was still a chance to have the places that didn’t burn to catch on fire. It backburned portions of the property and then died out or smouldered. Fire watch again tonight. We’ll investigate more in the daylight after another long, sleepless night…
Until next time….