The Carlton Complex fire: a rancher chooses gratitude

The Carlton Complex fire burned over 250,000 acres, making it the largest in recorded state history. News about the fire filled the media like the smoke from the summer wildfires filled the sky across eastern Washington. But just as the smoke has cleared, and the fires were contained about a month ago, few stories continue to be told.

One story I’d like to shed light on is the loss some of our local ranchers are facing. Some of our ranchers lost a staggering proportion of their herd, not unlike our friends hit by winter storm Atlas in South Dakota last year. Something less obvious to most people is that the loss of one cow, isn’t the loss of “one cow.” That one animal is the product of investment, decision making, and genetic traits built over generations to produce the best beef from the natural resources and management of a given ranch. Further, it’s the loss of the potential of all of that cow’s future progeny. It’s actually really tricky to put a precise dollar amount on that loss, unlike the loss of buildings and other property. The following is an excerpt of an article written by Vic Stokes, a leader among Washington ranchers to his peers in August. Maybe it’s just my postpartum hormones taking over, but I dare you not to get a little leaky in the eyeballs. While Vic focuses on the support their family has received from the ranching community, and the small victories in the ruins of range land, farm land, stored hay, and buildings lost, I’ve opted to share a few of their photos that show just a tiny bit of what they were facing in the aftermath of the fire.

Finding live cattle after the fire moved through the area. Image courtesy of Kent Stokes (Vic's son)

Finding live cattle after the fire moved through the area. Image courtesy of Kent Stokes (Vic’s son)

Hello Folks, so here I go. First, a huge THANK YOU to all of you for your thoughts, prayers and generosity to the ranching community’s time of need here in Okanogan County caused by the fires. I’m not going into details on the grimness that has surrounded us for the last month but want to tell about some things that continue to give us strength and lift our spirits. As usual, I try to find a word that defines what I can revolve this article around. That word would be “gratitude”. One defintion is: “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”. I don’t have enough column space to name all the folks that have reached out in some manner to ease the anxiety that came on the days around July 17th. And if I tried, I would fail miserably in doing everyone justice. I’ve witnessed time and again over the years the outpouring of help to ranching families throughout our country when disaster strikes and know that it will happen time and again in the future with little fanfare, but much heartfelt effort. I never anticipated that my family and neighbors would face such distress. Please, bear with me, the gratitude is genuinely there.

CC Fire Stokes

“We’re alive. Lost my house and a lot of the ranch burned but all in all could have been worse… i guess.” – Kent Stokes (via Facebook), July 18, 2014

So I do need to tell some of the simple pleasures that have evolved as the month has passed. Last week, a lone cow showed up at our roundup corral, feet healing from burns, somewhat thin but willing to live on. What that means to me! The will to live, to go on and thrive. Her survivability is a lesson for me. A couple of days ago Kent and I found 5 pairs in the unburned area of our permit. We knew there was some out there but to find that many was huge. We both looked at the cows with their calves and felt blessed we had found those. The cows we brought in earlier that had been burned continue to heal and move forward. I know I am pragmatic enough to realize that we are only a month into recovery and things can still go awry, but every day is one day forward. One of these cows in particular impresses me. She was burnt on the side of her face, down her neck and well down the length of her side. She came out of the fire area about a week after the fire and was headed home, no calf by her side. We debated what her immediate fate should be, but her will to survive so moved us that we wanted to give her every chance. With what care we give, she continues to mend and heal, has a good appetite and moves easily about. She is purely tough. This also, is a lesson for me, no matter what the longterm outcome.

There is a family picture of my paternal grandparents that comes to my mind when I think I’ve got problems. It shows them as a young couple in 1913, holding their newborn daughter, their two older children on the back of a horse. My grandparents are smiling and would go on to have seven children. Within a span of four or five years beginning in the late 1920’s into the early 30’s one son would contract polio and spend much time in Seattle, they lost the ranch we are on now because of the Great Depression and finally lose their oldest son from drowning in the Methow River when trying to ford it during high water horseback. Even though I didn’t know my grandfather, I knew my grandmother had immense faith and the strength to move on. They were tough, and I hang onto that image. We never know what tomorrow may bring but we should not fear the unknown. Their hardship gives me hope.

Down the road until next time,


3 thoughts on “The Carlton Complex fire: a rancher chooses gratitude

  1. Thank you so much for blogging about this. I too was so touched by Vics words and tried in vain to post a blog that always ended in tears and frustration with the devastation his family has suffered.

  2. Thank you for writing about your horrible event. (“The Carlton Complex fire burned over 250,000 acres, making it the largest in recorded state history.”) see:(
    I was touched by the story about the cow who made it home and her will to survive.
    We live in central Illinois My husband, Charlie, has a very small herd of Limousins and one shorthorn heifer (don’t ask). I do not think cows having souls but today I am closer to thinking they do have something more than just instinct. We have all read about elephants demonstrating mourning behavior. Today I think perhaps even cows can mourn a tragedy. One of his cows was found dead Friday evening with hedge apples all around her. Apparently she had choked on one. Then coyotes found her, before he could bury her the next day.
    Charlie not only takes the command to be a good steward seriously but he has a special caring for each in his small herd. He is despondent and deeply affected by the death of his cow . Perhaps made even more so by the herd bull’s behavior who was present at the cow’s burial. The bull began a mournful bellowing unlike his usual calling and has continued it even today which is Sunday.
    My prayers for healing and recovery go out to you. Thank you for sharing.

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