It is almost midnight. We have been pushing hard for 18 to 20 hours every day since the Bear Fire (later called the North Complex Fire) tore through our mountain cattle range on September 8, 2020. There is so much swirling in my head, I can’t sleep anyway.
The fire destroyed the range where our cattle grazed, our cattle, and even worse, our family’s legacy. Someone asked my daughter if I had lost our family home. She told them, “No, that would be replaceable. This is not.” I would gladly sleep in my truck for the rest of my life to have our mountains back.
I am enveloped by overwhelming sadness and grief and then anger. I’m angry at everyone, and no one. Grieving for things lost that will never be the same. I wake myself weeping almost soundlessly. It is hard to stop.
I cry for the forest, the trees and streams, and the horrible deaths suffered by the wildlife and our cattle. The suffering was unimaginable. When you find groups of cows and their baby calves tumbled in a ravine as they tried to escape, burned almost beyond recognition, or a fawn and small calf side by side as if hoping to protect one another, you try not to retch. You only pray death was swift.
My family has taken cattle to the Plumas National Forest since before it was designated such and now leases a portion of the land for grazing. It is steep land on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California, a vast forest of deep canyons, rivers, and creeks and the high ridges in between. It is not an easy place in the best conditions.
My great-great-grandfather started moving cattle to the high country sometime after he arrived in 1852 to look for gold. We were poor Irish immigrants trying to scratch a living from the land. There are six generations who have loved this land, and my new granddaughter, Juni, is the seventh. In these first days and nights since the fire, I often find myself overcome with emotion as I think of the things she will never see but only hear in stories.
Day 1: The Fire
When news of the fire broke, my son Kyle, who ranches with me, and I are sure it can’t be as bad as it sounded. We were relying on spotty reporting posted to local news or social media. My daughter Kate, a veterinarian who practices about four hours away, says, “I’m on the way.” My youngest son, Rob, a soldier stationed in Louisiana, says, “I have a lot of leave and I’m on a plane tomorrow.”
At first, we can’t get into the range, because it is completely locked down by fire officials for safety. We are frantic. We know cattle are dying as we wait. We have close to 400 cattle there, most of them calving or close to calving. They are the heart of the herd— good cows that know the land.
I receive a call from a Pennsylvania number. A wonderfully nice man from the U.S. Forest Service is calling to tell me about the fire because I have a permit to graze cattle in the area. I have to help him find the area on the map! He knows less than I do. Frustrating.
Later I get a call from another fire resource officer from the Forest Service. I ask about access. “Well,” he says, “maybe next week, and only if we provide an escort. We have to make it safe first.” All the cattle will be dead if I wait a week. I politely tell him I’ll figure out an alternative, through private timberland and common sense.
I call our county sheriff. I have to wait one day, but he provides two sergeants to navigate the roadblocks until Kyle and I make it into the range.
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