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Communicate and plan: key for emergencies

“Alameda fire was an inferno from the start,” Reneé De Launay said.

The Alameda fire along Interstate 5 near Ashland, Oregon, took off on Sept. 8, 2020. Reneé De Launay was on her way to do chores at the ranch she leases as part of the Land Manatee Foundation property and the Hooves for Habitat program. She could see the smoke plume at 11 am about a quarter mile from her south gate. She had running shoes, fence pliers and a shovel in her car. Making use of what she had, she ran a mile to the north canal, turned on flood irrigation and put in the first tarp dam to focus water. She also checked to see if her neighbor had his irrigation going.

By 11:30 she was calling trying to get the interstate shut down but that request was denied for the moment. She was also making plans on evacuating horses.

Renee let fences down to move stock from the north. “Uphill was a death trap with the wind. Towards the fire and south was the safest way. I had resources and more pasture there. Green was key,” she said.

While on the phone delegating horse evacuations, Reneé managed to move over 60 head of cattle on foot onto the irrigated ground. By 11:45 she was warned that the fire was jumping I5 towards her.

She made calls asking for assistance and fought jammed phone lines before finally getting ahold of someone to saddle her horse and hook up trailers at her house.

She kept jogging along with a shovel, making mental notes and pushing cattle into a boggy draw, with scorched lungs, almost throwing up. “The fire was hot, wind was surreal and the wind carrying ash was like walking through a sand storm.”

She made it back to her car and reached home to get her pickup and trailer and horse. All while calling and warning neighbors and making horse evacuation plans.

“I parked the trailer and took off with my horse riding on the road. Rode a mile and a half across I5, loping past cars backed up. At 12:38, I got a phone call update that horses loaded roadside in my rig, gals rode them to the trailer away from the fire, ponying more, letting others follow loose (old and crippled but not left behind),” she said.

Renee galloped north to the cattle and pushed them through the thick smoke, keeping a count on them and pushing toward the irrigated ground. Her horse fell in the bog and almost got stuck but thankfully was able to scramble out. The wind was blowing so hard, the smoke would clear briefly and the sky was blue. A neighbor was making a fire line with a backhoe and she was able to push the herd past the fire and to safety.

While loping north back into the smoke to check, she saw animals filtering past, cats running through the place.

“The fire was getting past us and spreading to the north along I5, the entire mile of my fence line was the last stand.

“Too late, every house and barn across I5 was burning along the greenway, veggies/flower farms and the greenway. I am running my horse now.

“Billings’ ranch pastures are aflame but they are saving the buildings and not letting it engulf past there, if they lose that line and it goes above that road it’s all done for miles of homes above there too, just like over here… my water is holding, I look and the backhoe line now has water in it. Praying it holds because there is more fire coming from south of me where I’m headed to the trailer. I need out of this inferno.

Fire is burning the fences, I5 everywhere, all the homes are ablaze, the pot farms, plastic and chemicals burning, the smoke is weird colors, the flames are even freakier, I’m light headed, embers landing on my horse and I, singeing hairs, I put out his mane burns as we run. So far it’s not getting up the hill of my place. 15,000 plus acres above are vulnerable to be toast in minutes and homes with people in them who don’t have phone service.”

Reneé and her horse were able to get out and thanks to grazing the perimeters earlier in the year the fire destroyed the fences but not the pastures. She helped evacuate others as nearby towns burned and has taken in displaced horses and livestock. She is thankful for a good horse in her time of need and her ability to read cattle as she moved and combined different groups of cattle.

Reneé De Launay was able to think on her feet and neighbors were close enough to help execute her emergency plan but it some don’t have a plan at the ready.

Ryan Sexson a Nenzel, Nebraska rancher, recommends that everyone on the ranch should have basic understanding of firefighting and undergo some training which is readily available. “Number one, assess the situation, make a plan with a specific timeline. And have a plan B if any step of the first plan can’t be executed. If you can’t execute an entire plan step by step, abandon it and go to the next plan.”

Sexson said that everyone needs to assess their place and figure out where is the safest place to go in case of a fire, such as a lake or wet meadow. “Identify a safe point and know how long it will take to get there, go on the short side so you don’t arrive three minutes too late. Nothing is worth a person’s life and your livestock isn’t worth a funeral. Always make sure your family is safe and that everyone knows the plan including neighbors so if you are missing they can go over your plan and have an idea where you might be. Communicate those things, at the end of the day your family needs you, your community needs you and it’s worth the time to be pretty through.”

He also recommends having another person with you whose sole job is to watch the fire, a lookout. Because it’s very easy to get caught up in what you are doing and not notice a wind change or the fire moving. He also thinks we should study and learn from tragedies and that the best time to really assess what could be done differently is right after it happens.

Sexson is a big advocate of learning and improving your stockmanship. “Cattle are creatures of habit, how they handle won’t change in an emergency. If you spend the time to work on yourself, training your cattle and yourself to get the cattle to response the way we want, so you will be able to work alone. The knowledge and skills are there, learn it and develop your skills so you and your cattle are prepared,” Sexson said. “You might not have time to gather a crew or have hours to move the cows and pair them up. If your moves are continually set up so your cows stay paired up, they are habitual enough the cows will know to pick up their calf and go. Cows have to experience something good before their behavior will change. Take the time when you have the time to develop your skills so when you don’t have the time you have the skills.”

Flint Licking is on the volunteer fire department in Bassett, Nebraska, “It sure helps us out a bunch if water tanks are full.”

He said most of the times the grass fires in his area move so fast it is hard to move livestock in time. He recommends cleaning up your property and reducing fuel such as underbrush, cedars and trimming trees and also having a spray unit if possible.

Matthew Nelson is a volunteer fireman and rancher in Elko County, Nevada. He has personally experienced some of the large fast moving fires in the great basin. He said it is important after a fire to drain and clean out water tanks as the ash mixed with water creates lye. And to leave your stock dogs at home because if they breathe in too much ash it can turn to lye in their mouths and poison them. “Don’t depend on the fire department, they won’t get there in time and most fire crews have no knowledge of livestock so have your own plan. Do not move directly ahead of a fire, don’t try to outrun it. Try to flank the fire and go to the side and drop on the black if you have to. See which way the wind in coming and quarter across, pay attention to the wind.”

He said it is a wise idea to carry livestock insurance, to have your vehicles fueled up and check tires. Also if you have more stock than will fit in your trailer to consider moving some out early and have an option on where to move them. “Cows aren’t very smart, they won’t leave from a fire, horses panic, so make sure you close the gates and the barn doors.”

He echoed cleaning up your property, moving and keeping the weeds down around your buildings, mowing along your drive way and knowing where to put in a fire line if necessary. Have your address clearly visible and develop a relationship with your local volunteer fire department, go to their BBQ and know how to communicate with them. Know where your important papers and things are so you can quickly grab them and go. He said if you are trying to move stock to make sure the firemen know you are in there and where you are and also to tell them when you are out. Cattle can become trapped by fences so cutting the corners and allowing them to drift is an option but don’t get yourself in a bind. “Have a plan and don’t wait until the last minute.”


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