Sunday, June 12, 2011

Whitetail Canyon: a Firsthand Account

by Wynne Brown, Guest Author

All hell broke loose soon after I sent my last update. The wind picked up to 50-60 mph gusts that afternoon and blew so hard that it was hard to stand upright. The light in the Grills' barnyard turned copper, the sun disappeared, and the smoke was so thick we could barely see Blue Mountain, much less The Nippers, Split Rock, or Maverick Peak. It whipped anything that was smoldering into flame, junipers exploded, and burning embers flew as far as 3 miles, igniting the ground, trees, dead stumps, and dry grass wherever they landed.

Horseshoe Two from Portal on June 5
(All photos by Wynne Brown)

Whitetail became an inferno. Watching the smoke and, once darkness fell, the western glow, we knew for sure that every structure there HAD to be gone.

Jhus Canyon burning on June 7

A fire team member arrived just before dark to assess the defensibility of the Grills' ranch and let us know that although the fire probably wouldn't get here, we should be prepared to evacuate just in case. So we scrambled to devise a list of who would release which livestock, which horses would go where, what truck/trailer combination would hold our combined 8 dogs and 7 cats, what about the chickens and the lame calf, where would the llamas go––and would the 2 camels load in the stock trailer?

Peeking in the window as fire approaches

Peter and Frances were able to set up a generator on the pump that feeds the cattle waterer and the house, and our first showers in a week were very welcome. Clean or not, none of us slept much Wednesday night.

Thursday at 4:30 a.m. one of the firefighters pulled into the driveway to let us know two residences had burned and some other outbuildings. In the dark and smoke, he'd had a hard time identifying specific places (all our houses were coded: mine is structure #3)––but he was pretty sure Al's and my places were OK.

The rest of Thursday was more dense smoke, more clearing flammables away from structures, more fire team trucks pulling in and out of the driveway, more discussion between the Grills and the fire team about using their pond for helicopter dips or just filling tenders, multiple trips to the hill a mile away to check cell phone messages and make calls, and most of all, trying to get real information about damage to our homes. The assessment team couldn't get into Whitetail, which was still burning with flaming trees continuing to fall, hot rocks rolling down hillsides, stumps bursting into flame, the road thick with engines, tenders, and busloads of hotshot crews. I talked to a firefighter later, who grinned and said, "Yeah, we took some heat!"

By suppertime, Columbus Electric put in a new power pole so that this ranch could have power and the phone. Hallelujah!

On Friday (yesterday), the sheriff's office informed me: My barn burned, but my house is fine.

Remains of a barn

Thanks to the structure prep crews and the heroism of the firefighters who kept returning to the blaze after being beaten back by the heat, torching trees, and smoke––my house looks exactly the same as it did the week before all this started. The hay barn is nothing but a pile of roof metal and twisted rebar, but the tack shed, the Merhow horse trailer, the straw bale pump house, Jim's ATV and trailers, his office across the road––they're all fine.

Two of the 18 Whitetail residences burned.

Although the official rule is still no non-fire personnel in the area, two safety officers and the crew boss knew about Jim's stroke, knew that I needed to get to Tucson, and kindly arranged to take me into the canyon, as long as I promised to stay in the truck.

Until the turn-off into Jhus Canyon, everything looks normal, as long as you avoid glancing at the gray mountainsides above it. I had no idea it's so rocky....

After Jhus, the grassland is dotted with blackened patches, but Darrow Richins' cows looked healthy as they grazed on what dry grass is left. Once you cross the last cattle guard before my house, the devastation begins. Some areas look mostly OK, others are a black and white photo where the tonal range extends from tree trunks of deep black to ash-white ground. Some of it looks so different that, without my mailbox, I wouldn't have recognized my own driveway. In other areas, the mesquites still have drooping leaves of sooty green, and although the ground is bare and gray, the remaining junipers look as if they may make it.

The aftermath

My composter totally melted away, the garden hot box looks like a Salvador Dali dripping watch, the hay under the llama shelter is incinerated––but the big beautiful juniper I park under looks fine, and the 1000-pound bale in the slow feeder is unsinged under the hill horses' shelter.

The house sits in an oasis of green––and the firefighters even watered my petunias and marigolds.

On the surface, it might seem that the past six weeks have been nothing but loss: I've been laid off, my dog had to have her leg amputated, my partner had a stroke, and Hell roared through my property, destroying my barn.

Yet, my gratitude list is nearly endless. I still have a house, I still have Jim––although our life together will be very different than it was for some time to come––and I still live in a beautiful, if wounded, area.

But, most of all, I live in a buffer zone created by the loving, caring kindness of friends.

Thank you, all of you!

[And thank you, Wynne, for sharing your account with our community of concerned friends, both local and global! Wynne will send photos when she can, so check back in to see those too.]


  1. Dear Narco: We've not met, but I know of your wonderful wildlife illustrations and am a retired wildlife biologist in Olympic National Park, with a long history and love-affair of biological exploring and camping in Cave Creek canyon. My heart and high-hopes go out to you, your husband, your animals...and your lovely canyon valley. Hopefully all will work out better with time...and the healing beauty of these lovely, unique places will still shine an abiding beacon of joy in your lives...despite all these abrupt and challenging changes. Our very best to you and yours, Bruce Moorhead, Port Angeles, WA;

  2. Wynne, such a poignant and moving account of the fires that have raged, not only in your area, but across much or our country this spring. Your article is a microcosm of life: full of tragedy and yet still somehow beautiful in the majesty of friends who support us, small blessings that keep us moving ever onward, and the awesome commitment of men and women who risk their lives so that we might have ours!

  3. Hi Narca, I met you when birding with Dick Erickson many years ago. Sad you lost your barn glad your house made it. Any word on Bob Behrstock's & Rick Taylor's places. Thanks,

    Gary Lester

  4. Hi Gary, This post was from a friend, Wynne Brown, and she is the person who lost her barn. Rick Taylor's house is fine, with minor damage to a root cellar and some singeing of vegetation. Bob Behrstock's place was one of very few still standing in Ash Canyon a couple of days ago. He wasn't counting it as saved until the flare-ups stop, but it's looking good, and his big trees somehow survived as well. I think a pumphouse was lost.

  5. Thanks Narca. Good news for Rick & hoping for all the best to Bobby B. Love from all of us in Humboldt. Wish we could send you some fog....