Lessons Learned from the Cold Springs Fire

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Lessons Learned from the Cold Springs Fire near Nederland, Colorado-- July 2016
by Phillip Reschke, PhillBilly Farms LLC

Like any Saturday morning during calving season, I was tending to my herd of Tibetan Yaks to see if I had any new calves on the ground. We had a healthy large female born 6 weeks prior, very near the expected birthdate, and I was baffled that the other two cows still had not delivered nearly two cycles later. After a few hours outside, I walked back up to the house for lunch and noticed that the clouds behind the mountain where our house sits, looked as if the sun were setting. I went inside and asked my wife to come see the horizon. We walked out on the deck and that is when I realized it was a column of smoke!

Quickly I grabbed the binoculars I always keep handy and we rushed off to my neighbor's property for a better view. Well, it was certainly a fire, but still several miles away. We were planning to leave for a wedding that afternoon, but those plans changed. Unfortunately, I didn't have much of a plan. We had never needed a trailer before, and I always figured we would just rent one down in the city if there were a need. Even if I did have a trailer on the property, both of our pickups happened to be in the shop. We went home and loaded the vehicle with valuables. Anything that was insured and replaceable had to stay. I quickly turned my phone to video and walked through the house, closets, and garage to document what we might lose. I turned on the sprinkler system I had built specifically to irrigate the walls of the house if there were a fire. (At least I had done some fire preparation after our move to the mountains.) A sheriff arrived as we finished loading the vehicle to let us know our area was under evacuation, and then he headed off.

Soon thereafter, I said goodbye to my wife as she hiked down the mountain with our two dogs to a car that a friend had left for us since we were down to one vehicle. I was determined to stay with my yaks. I feared that if I turned them loose, I could lose the whole herd if they went the wrong direction.

Evening came and the power went out. No more sprinklers for the house irrigation and no generator on hand large enough to run a 2hp well pump. I checked on the smoke from the top of the mountain one last time before bed. The next morning my wife drove back up to just before the checkpoint where all cars were being turned around and hiked up the mountain to let me know she had good news. She and a friend had assembled a crew with trailers and gotten permission from the sheriff for them to come up and load my eight animals. I refused and she left bewildered and upset. I was worried about the soon-to-be-born calves, and I did not want to be burdening others when the fire was still miles away, I was concerned about the cost, plus I had no idea where I could take them and keep my two bulls from escaping.

That Sunday afternoon, the winds whipped up and the fire raged. It was heading directly my way. I watched the airshow as huge tankers barely cleared the mountain top I was watching from. By early evening, the smoke was everywhere, and a white plume appeared to be coming up from an adjacent property on the other side of the mountain. There was no time to hike up for another look. It was time to go. I haltered up a few cows and tied 30' ropes to the halters. I figured as long as I could control the dominant female, the herd would stick around. I grabbed one of my white 6' rods that I use extensively with my herd, opened the gates, and off we went. We descended the mountainside and arrived at the highway a half hour later, just in time to be heckled by a CDOT driver who insisted that I was absolutely not allowed to walk my herd down the highway. His job was to keep the road clear for emergency vehicles. Well, it did not matter anymore after our brief interaction. I had just lost control of my herd. Some were hungry and ran to the creek; others must have just wanted to know what it feels like to flip up their tails and run on the asphalt! The driver took off, and fearing I was going to be in trouble. I headed back up to the house to get my vehicle.

I drove over to another neighbor's property to get a closer look at exactly where the fire was. It was a few ridges away, which I estimated to be two miles, and the sun was setting. I started to drive back to the house feeling alone, sad, confused, and kicking myself for not listening to my wife earlier that morning. I came around a corner and, to my delight and amazement, there were all of my females on the road, heading back home. After I got them back in the pasture, I went to sleep. I did get up a few times in the night.

The next morning the fire was still in the same area. I located my bulls about a half mile away in a ravine, because I saw the herd leader at the far end of the pasture looking in their direction. I finally found my cell phone, but was unable to place a call or text. I drove to the neighbor's and finally got connectivity. My wife called with bad news and good news. The bad news was that the sheriff had located and dispatched a trailer, but it had to turn around, because both sides of the main road were now on fire. The good news was that the next valley over to the north, also under evacuation, had a spot that they could get to if I could get my herd down there. We made and executed a plan.

There was a 4-wheeler with a key at my neighbor's and an old mining road on the backside of my land. I had done some cleanup of the road the prior summer, but didn't know if it was still passable by vehicle. The sheriff escorted my wife to where the trailer was going to arrive, and I drove the 4-wheeler down there and picked her up. We drove back up, put halters on the yaks, including the bulls, and drove them down the valley. They only got off course a few times and it went a lot better with two people herding them instead of one. We tied them up at the creek, and I raced back to return the 4-wheeler and get the vehicle with all of our valuables. I had only one thing left to pack, nearly a quarter yak in my freezer! Five minutes later the coolers were loaded and I drove down the mining road just in time to see my wife and another rancher close the trailer door on my bull, Popeau, while four police vehicles were parked bumper-to-bumper to form a makeshift corral around the trailer. I offered to pay the rancher, but he refused. I handed out several pounds of yak meat, and we headed to the city. We unloaded at the fairgrounds in Longmont and were given hay and a separate corral for the bulls.

We waited several days for calves to drop and patiently waited for the latest mapping of the fire to be released each morning. Having moved from Boulder to the mountains just a few years ago, we had plenty of people to see and things to do. Several days later the fire was contained, the evacuation lifted, and I hired a recently injured rancher who needed the money to help me trailer the yaks home with his rig. We drove through scorched earth and passed a few unlucky homeowners, and then it turned green again the last few miles to our place. What a relief.

A lot of the lessons learned are probably obvious at this point. In an emergency, do not be afraid to accept help. There are a lot of good people in the world who care for strangers, and a surprising amount of resources are available through the local government. I, of course, should have left the morning my wife had everything lined up. I probably need to go ahead and buy a large propane generator. I need to not wait for both trucks to break down before hauling them in to the mechanic. I am grateful that we handle our yaks daily and were able to pull off the yak drive with relative ease. Well, we figured that the first calf to drop after such drama we would name Fire. My cow delivered homozygous twin trim girls that are mirror images of each other, so we named the other one Rain! The next day a royal bull calf was born and we named him Lucky.

HealthPhillip Reschke