WyoWomanPhotography.com: Thoughts

7. Pine Ridge Fire

by Vicki Tillard

The summer of 2006 may long be remembered as the season Wyoming burned. Out-of-control wild fires fueled by years of drought and above average temperatures swept across the state. In the final tally, 616 fires scorched 187,000 acres of Wyoming forest and grassland between April and September.

The Little Venus fire west of Meeteetse started in June and by the time it was fully contained in September, 34,600 acres were burned. In Sheridan County the Buffalo Creek fire in early July burned 22,900 acres.

The Jackson Canyon Fire on Casper Mountain, just six miles south of Casper, forced evacuations of several neighborhoods and kept property owners away from home for days. By the time it was contained on August 21, one week after it started, it had devoured 11,800 acres. More than 12,000 acres went up in smoke 20 miles southwest of Kaycee when the Outlaw 2 fire burned during the last eight days of August.

In Converse County, two wildfires consumed thousands of acres in the span of 10 days. The Twenty-Mile Fire east of Douglas burned 11,600 acres in six days. The Pine Ridge fire dubbed by the media the Sawmill Fire consumed 16,500 acres in three days.

Every one of these fires was started by lightning. When a fire is caused by human carelessness, we can justifiably chastise the fire starter. But when an act of nature brings about such devastation, there is no target for our anger, sadness and fear. It is a test of integrity to accept even what we hate.

Lightning struck on the evening of July 18th, and three days later, miles of pine trees and immeasurable livestock and wildlife forage had been devoured. High winds and hot, dry conditions were unwelcome complications.

The wildfire grew from 50 acres to nearly 10,000 in the first three hours. By 10 o'clock that night, the out-of-control fire made it clear there was no fighting it at that point. It was too fast moving and out of control to fight in the timber. There was nothing to do but open gates to free trapped animals, try to keep the fire from going into the grassland and stay out of harms way.

Area ranchers with rural fire trucks, friends, family and firefighters worked the perimeter and waited. Fire units from Converse, Natrona and Johnson counties responded. A staging area was set up at the foot of the ridge where food, drink and help amassed for what promised to be a long, hard fight.

My brothers and their wives, my nephews, cousins and neighbors, some as young as 18, some with young families and some with very little firefighting experience, wage what looked like an uphill fight. They battled the flames for 24 or more straight hours without rest, often to no avail but with no thought of giving up or backing down.

The Pine Ridge is on the western edge of the Ogalalla. Its pine-covered hills offer some of the most beautiful scenery on the ranch, and excellent summer pasture for livestock. For generations, it has been a special place for family outings, fishing trips, and picnics.

When Vern looked out over miles of scorched earth and said, "Never again in my lifetime will the Pine Ridge be the same," I was struck by the enormity of the loss and the human powerlessness over natures elements. And I was humbled by his attitude of acceptance.

Ranchers are at the mercy of Mother Nature-blizzard and bad roads, too little rain and too much rain, bitter cold and sweltering heat, howling wind and furious lightning. Those capricious factors can make or break a rancher’s business.

Possibly no other profession relies so heavily on such unpredictable and uncontrollable elements. Yet, there is no time for self-pity or despair. The only attitude that serves them is, “it is what it is so make the best of it.” I call that real character.

Tomorrow is another day and only God knows what that holds. Maybe the drought will break, maybe next summer will be a wet one. In the ridge, the grass will be lush and the rare stands of trees that miraculously escaped the fire will thrive. Whatever happens, it is what it is. I so admire the ranchers in my life for their devotion to this gratifying yet grueling way of life.