I find it difficult to start sharing the many recent makes that I’ve yet to photograph before delving into a recent “natural” disaster that happened on our ranch. If you follow me on Instagram, you may already be aware that we had a fire hit our pastures. This was the most frightening event thus far in my life as it was not only unexpected, but it was fraught with worry and not knowing if the life that I and generations before me had built was going to turn into ash. The outcome was thankfully not a devastating one, but the experience was somewhat traumatic.
The Detwiler Fire started on a Sunday in a remote area called Hunters Valley about 20 miles away. Fires seem to burn over there in the chaparral and dry grasses quite often and although the smoke was horrid, we did not worry that it would travel that far to reach us. Of course we were concerned for the folks we know who live in that area and the pets, livestock and wildlife. The fire started burning fast and spread quickly. Many people only had minutes to evacuate and get out of it’s path. We watched it’s progression both online and by watching the smoke from our side of the mountain. The smoke was so thick that it permeated everything and obstructed the view of the sun.
By Monday as we heard of more and more people being evacuated as the fire spread, we started thinking about getting ready to evacuate ourselves. I honestly never thought it would happen. It was more of a preparedness thing and something that we think about quite often in my area as wildfires are always a threat. In fact, my grandpa (who was a volunteer firefighter) spent decades preparing our ranch and our houses on our ranch for a wildfire. There were two times in my life that I can remember a fire coming close to our ranch. The first was in the early 90’s when we watched a wildfire burn on the mountain across from us, which was then quickly extinguished. The second was in the 00’s, when I drove home from college in South Dakota to find a burned up patch by a turnout on the highway below us and fire crews in our driveway mopping up a small fire caused by a vehicle fire. That, too, was quickly put out.
As the fire quickly spread on Monday night and got closer to us, both my family and our neighbors started thinking more seriously about it. We moved livestock to a safe place and some of our neighbors started bulldozing and clearing a line. My family set up an evacuation plan and we thought about what we would take if it happened. Then on Tuesday morning the fire reached Mt. Bullion and began ripping through the brush. We figured that we had a highway between our mountain and there, but I started getting ready. The fire had fingers that went off in different directions and I think it was still 0% contained at that time. It was an unpredictable and very quick moving fire as the high grass from our recent wet winter paired with the dead trees from the drought combined to make highly flammable fuel for the fire.
Tuesday morning we received a call from the Sheriff for mandatory evacuations for my little town on a road about 3 miles away. That’s when I started packing. Before long there was a nixle update on my phone texted to me and my area was under evacuation orders, too. Our “finger” of the fire had jumped the road and crossed over to our mountain.
It is a surreal feeling when you pack your belongings to evacuate a home you may never come back to. After the animals, important documents and emergency supplies were taken care of, what really matters? I originally had plans to take two of my sewing machines and my vintage patterns. I walked around the house and looked at my possessions along with all of those that I have that belonged to family members before me. Some of those things are just things. They have memories attached to them, but they aren’t the memories themselves. I walked around the house and thought about what cannot be replaced. I packed up all of the family photo albums along with our century old family heirloom quilts. I looked at my closet full of dresses and thought to myself that I can sew those again. I looked at my sewing machines and decided that those could be replaced. I felt a little bad for taking a recently made dress off my dressform to pack as it seemed materialistic, but the dress was made of vintage 1950’s fabric I had recently unearthed in a trunk that could not be replaced. I basically packed clothing that was easy to wear and care for and that was cool enough to wear in the summer heat, threw in some jewelry and make-up and headed out the door. My parents had their RV hooked up and ready to go. Our animals were loaded and we got ready to head out of the driveway just as a deputy drove in the yard to ask if we needed help evacuating. As we left, we saw the fire on the side of our mountain and planes flying over our heads dropping water and retardant. I snapped a pic of my house and prayed that when we returned that it would still be standing.
That day and the next were the two most agonizing days of my life. The worst was that we did not know what was going on. We didn’t know if our house had succumbed to the flames. We looked for any news that we could find and were so thankful for Facebook as we had two local fire and emergency groups that we were able to keep updated on. My parents stayed in their RV beyond the evacuation point and heard from neighbors who did not evacuate and from fire personnel. My husband and I stayed down in the valley in a crappy Motel 6, but we were just happy to be allowed to have our dogs and cats with us and to be safe and cool for the time being. I had brought a book to read as well as a dress I was beading for Costume College. I could not concentrate enough to read or bead or do anything else but worry and cry, because not knowing was fearful and agonizing. They had evacuated about 50% of my county by that time and from the valley I could see a big plume of smoke.
Wednesday morning my dad had called and said the fire was behind our barn. I wept all morning as I imagined everything that my family has built going down in flames. My house is more than just a house as my grandparents lived here and my grandpa built it. My grandpa also built our barn and outbuildings and our other houses and there are hundreds of years of family antiques and memories contained inside. Just thinking that it could all have been gone was the saddest feeling. When my dad called around noon and said that we were “okay”, I could finally relax.
The fire crept all around our ranch and nearly swallowed it whole. Fire crews from all over the state were stationed on our ranch combating the flames. My dad told me that a crew from Grass Valley held a line behind our barn for 36 hours. I saw a post doing a hashtag search on IG and found firefighters from Rancho Santa Fe below our house saving it. As well as firefighters from Grass Valley and Rancho Santa Fe, we have met crews on our ranch from Bakersfield, Turlock, Chino and Porterville. There were many others that we did not meet and I hope they know how thankful we are. I am eternally grateful to the firefighters who saved our houses and to the law enforcement who kept us safe. Without them we would have lost it all.
Although it looked like our prayers were answered and our house was protected, the fire continued to rage. My parents decided to come down with their dogs and get a room at our motel on Thursday. The evacuations were not lifted for our area until Saturday and that’s when we went home. For another 24 hours fire crews were still stationed at our ranch. After that for a week or so, they were still in the vicinity to put out any flare ups. My husband went on patrol in the pastures every day and had to put out a couple of hot spots. They were in the burned area, so the crews were not too worried about it, but when some flames went up, they came and put them out.
I feel very fortunate, especially as I know many people came home to nothing but ash. That could have very well been my family’s outcome. They stopped the fire at our wells, which are on the hill behind our barn. The fire surrounded my house, except for one little strip on the side. The only casualty was an old sheep barn that was not in use. A lot of the darkened hillside and pastureland looks like dark shadows, but it’s really eerie to gaze at every day knowing how close the fire came. I am eternally thankful to those who helped to save our place.
Looking on the bright side, many of the trees that died during the drought have burned. We also had a lot of brush that came down the creeks during the wet winter. The fire cleaned all of that up. I think much of the grass will begin growing again once it starts raining and the pastures will be renewed. Our mountain hasn’t burned for 90+ years, so I guess it was time. It was a terrible experience to go through, but I felt that my grandpa was watching over all of us and keeping us and our homes safe.