Deciding what burns: Being prepared may save you the hassle
August 15, 2014
Montana ranch hand Natalie Severeide was sooty and shaking and feeling very mortal when she telephoned her twin from blazing ground.
"I called my twin to tell her I loved her," says Severeide, a wildfire survivor. "I didn't know how it was going to end. She thought I was kidding. Who honestly gets caught in a wildfire? Then she realized I wasn't kidding. I said bye and forgot got to hang up. I handed the phone to a fireman."
Severeide was caught in what became known as the fast-moving Chi Chi fire of 2007. Man-started in the Crazy Mountains, the fire trapped cows, horses, and personnel at the Billy Creek Ranch outside of Melville, Mont.. It was November, and gale force winds drove the blaze over 18,000 acres, destroying thousands of acres of pasture in the region as well as several homes and even firefighting equipment.
Burn bans this year are in place in some communities and the National Weather Service issues daily Red Flag Warnings. Wildland fire rages over more than a half a million acres in Oregon and Washington. Valuable vineyards in Northern California have burned, and in the West, farmers and ranchers may look a little harder at the skyline than usual, watching for trouble.
Inciweb, a real-time reporting system on the internet, lists a half a dozen active fires on public land in Wyoming and Montana. If you were a rancher with a lease in those areas, running cows and sheep in the cool of forest trees or over the native grasses of dry range land, you might have had help from government agencies moving your stock out of danger.
Or you might have turned to help a neighbor, like the Smiths did recently, where a neighborhood mobilized against smoke on a ridge near Broadview, Mont.
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"My son was one of the first to see it," said Jane Smith, who watched nervously about five miles away from the fire, thinking of her cows and goats. "All the local ranchers gathered…Some worked with firemen, others helped secure (the property owner's) home, and others were ready to move if needed."
When fire is widespread, as can happen on public land, gates are thrown wide and fences are cut. Trailers are loaded or stock is pushed across county lines, and livestock boards waive permits and look for temporary pasture for those who need it. State and county fairgrounds become emergency shelters for smaller groups of animals. Even Homeland Security gets involved.
Aaron Voose, public information officer with the US Forest Service in Laramie, Wyo., is a veteran of Wyoming's Squirrel Creek fire of 2012.
"In the early stages, we worked with the Red Cross and the county so that people who had their homes or their livestock threatened had help," Voose says. "We established evacuation centers where animals could be accommodated."
Wyoming state seterinarian Jim Logan says getting animals away from intense heat is a priority. "Most livestock are not in enclosed areas during a wildfire, so they tend to succumb to heat rather than smoke inhalation."
When evacuation is not an option, wetting land, buildings, and animals is critical. "Spray down everything you can, and keep animals as far away from the heat source as you possibly can," Logan says.
Severeide remembers the ranch horses being hard to load with the wind and smoke, except for her half-draft gelding. "It's like he knew this was important for me. He stood in the smoke and let me walk him thru the smoldering fields."
Logan said it's hard to predict how individual animals will behave when faced with a fire. "Some are going to handle it real well, and others are more likely to panic."
Montana–born 911 dispatcher April Svenson might say the same thing about people. Svenson, whose family ranches in Reed Point, Mont., says if she saw smoke within driving distance of her place, she would pack her cell phone, a couple of shovels and a fire extinguisher.
If she placed a call to 911, it would include the color of smoke, a detail that helps dispatchers coordinate a response. "The color of the smoke can help us locate and determine the type of fire. White smoke is usually grass, grey is wet or heavy wood and black is a house or a vehicle. That way if we don't have an exact location the responding crews know what they are looking for."
Wildland fires are affected by wind, temperature and humidity and sometimes even create their own internal weather. For Severeide, hot, windy days bring back strong memories. "The burning brush, pine trees, and the relentless wind. The wind freaks me out still. Can't see it, can't control it."
While weather may be outside humans' sphere of control, fuel and topography are not.
Not all fuels behave in the same way, so one strategy is to understand the vegetation on your landscape and take steps to reduce risk where you can. Even topography can be modified to help create a "defensible space."
Zones like "defensible space" might be designed around a home or barn or corrals. Statistics say your chances of saving a structure may be increased by as much as 85 percent if you implement defensible space.
While farms and ranches typically have plenty of combustible materials around, increasing the chances that any stray spark could be catastrophic, keeping combustibles at least 30 feet from your home and outbuildings can make your property safer. Even pruning branches six to 10 feet from the ground might protect your property.
This time of year, when farmers and ranchers are in the field, they're dealing with another risk factor–hot machinery and dry vegetation. "During combining, baling and swathing, keep extinguishers and shovels in the rigs at easy access," Svenson says. If you're planning to burn something intentionally, she stresses having a water source nearby and never leaving the fire unattended, as well as being choosy about the environmental conditions present and forecast when setting the fire.
On farms and ranches are inherently complicated because of the tools and equipment needed to do a job, simple changes like keeping combustibles at least 30 feet from your home and outbuildings can still make a property safer.
Understanding the "fire triangle" – fuel, heat, and oxygen – also helps with preparation. Fire needs all three to combust, and high intensity fires do not engulf entire spaces like avalanches do.
Firefighting agencies say most wildfires start unnoticed, gathering momentum and material before they are detected.
With the Chi Chi fire, what had been observed as a little curl of smoke on a snow-capped mountain quickly built into an inferno.
Neighbors had already gathered, chainsaws in their hands, when the wind gave the fire the edge. "Out of nowhere a giant blast of wind sent a fireball over our heads," Severeide says. "It got crazy very quickly."
The evacuation of 500 head of cows became priority one. Flames crawled beside Severeide's diesel long-bed truck as the fire closed the gap to the ranch house and a historic barn. "My job was to get ahead of everybody, to try to get ahead of the fire and open all cattle gates so the cows could get free."
Most of the stock was saved, although some were badly burned. The next day they fed hay on charred ground. A giant pivot irrigator turned on the house saved it from ruin.
Other buildings were lost, along with a fire engine, miles of fence and a stack of hay. "We spent weeks afterwards rebuilding fences, it seemed like everything was gone. Those old cedar fence posts from way back in the day never burned up. They kept the fence line."
For some time after Chi Chi, Severeide sometimes hid out on windy nights, sheltered in the bathtub like someone in the path of a tornado.
She now lives on a few acres outside Lovell, Wyo, with her husband and a toddler son. "I only live a few miles from town," she says, "But I still have a plan. What do you decide burns?"