by Elsie Eide Kelly

I had such dreams for this place, til they went up in smoke in the Labor Day, 2020 Whitney Wildfire. But the beauty of my surroundings is still inspiring. There’s a rock outcropping here on my little ranch that I call the South Bluff, which is beautiful at sunset with the sun’s rays warming its dark basalt rock. Then, there’s the big one, the West Bluff, most beautiful at sunrise. It runs along the ranch like a knife has carved out a line, leaving you with no alternative but to obey its boundary. I see them now like I didn’t before the fire. They survived with barely a scar, those beautiful lichen covered rocks that display so many bright colors any time of the year the sun shines on them. They stayed safe through that fire while everything else burned black: my home, garage, barns, shop, outbuildings, fences.

first glimpse of the fire damage
first glimpse of the fire damage

Everything I had ever owned in my long life was burned into nothing but pools of metal and black ash. I had nowhere to go and didn’t know what to do. My friend came along with the offer to share his home while I tried to gather my thoughts and my strength. That’s where I’ve been since the fire and I’m slowly pulling myself together.

This spring the grasses and weeds came back on the land, with a vengeance, hiding most of the blackened earth. But when the wind blew, as it did non-stop this past year, the ash between the growth was blown onto and into everything. It’s always been dusty out here but now it was black ash mixed with the dust and smeared when I tried to wash it off. It was a constant reminder of the destruction and appeared to be futile to try cleaning up.

Sometimes, as the sun shines, I’m reminded that I once was pretty darned happy. When that happens I can see the beauty around me and feel the warmth of conversations with people I might meet as I go about my business. But some days all I had in me was a stilted smile, wrenched from my gut, when my manners said that I should make a strong effort to treat everyone with respect and a warm greeting no matter how I felt. For a long time those were the days I had a smile on the outside but emptiness inside. I couldn’t help it but at least I could disguise it so no one felt awkward around me or thought me rude.

A year later, the aching in my mind is fading and my goal is to figure out exactly what made me happy. It must have started within me but I know it was grown in the beauty of my surroundings. Now my job is to find the happiness again.

I’ve discovered a new philosophy, that “thoughts become things.” To me it means that if I want to reach a new point in my life and come out of the pain of the past I need to think about what I want and work toward making it happen. Is there any other way? I don’t think so. Not if I want to survive whole. I have to move forward and take the steps to build a new dream if it’s ever going to come true.

I’ve spent a year in a depression that has me wondering what I’ve done with myself this whole time since the wildfire took away everything I possessed. Everything except the new chicken house, a few lucky trees and my Iivestock. I don’t think I’d be sane today if they hadn’t been pushed to safety in a sub-irrigated pasture near their barn. The Lincoln County District 7 and other firemen helped me turn the stock out of the barns and paddocks into the pasture while desperately trying to make me understand I had to leave. The wind had shifted and the fire was bearing down on us. I left. But I didn’t believe it was going to burn my place. Not my place that had been saved from other fires that came close enough to burn down some fence lines. The firemen had come through every time. But they couldn’t this time. The 50+ mph raging hot winds and fire tornadoes turned them back and caused the fire to ravage a number of ranches before dying. Mine was only one of them. My good neighbor also lost her home and had to move out of state to family. She is completely devastated and can’t rebuild. Other survivors of fire talk about never being able to forget it. They might move on with their lives but they can’t forget. I know it will be true for me, too. There are times when I will suddenly think of something I had, picture it clearly and then realize all over again that it’s gone forever. Photos of my whole family history, the good china, the antique furniture brought home from my world travels and all the other incidentals that made up my life have disappeared and left a hole in my existence.

Through the time since the fire, I can only remember bits and pieces of conversations I had with all those wonderful people who connected with me after the fire, trying to make sure I had what I needed. They gave me food, personal items, saddles and tack, dog food and feed for the stock. Wheatland Vet Clinic treated my cat whose feet were burned. They wouldn’t even charge me! Davenport FFA gave me hay and grain. My mind is still almost blank around that time. I couldn’t answer the question of what did I need. It was more like what didn’t I need. It was all gone. I got out with only the clothes on my back.

I understand that I’m grieving and it’s not easy to bear the anguish I’ve felt. At times I really want to be around people but, when I am for too long, I begin to feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to talk about the precious things I lost, but, then again, I do. I had started a venture into hospitality doing Airbnb and was very successful. It was incredible how many people wanted to get away to the country and enjoy the peace and quiet and the animals as well as my lovely home. I lost a good deal of income there. There was a film crew coming from Canada to film the ending of their movie here, they fell in love with the scenery and had already spent a weekend photographing everything to go back and make decisions where to film. They would be using my horses and some of the local cowboys in their settings. It’s all just memories now. I still keep looking for things that are gone forever except in my mind.

I am beginning to understand that I need to let go of it all and move on with my life. Starting over at 75 isn’t as straight forward as for a younger person. I was at the stage, before the fire, of cutting back and reducing my chore load to give me more time to play. I think I was getting a little bit tired. Now, as I am face to face with rebuilding my entire life, I need to think about the future: what I’m now capable of doing, and what do I want to do. It’s a little confusing because I have it somewhere in my mind that I’m 21 still and perfectly able to do anything I want to do. (I’m smiling in amusement at myself for being maybe a little delusional.)

Staying part time in a travel trailer on the ranch this summer while I tried to rebuild hasn’t been easy or comfortable as I remember it being when I was younger. Every time I dusted, it was black with the ash that came pouring in through the air conditioning. I needed to scrub the filter every few days as it turned the ceiling black. Last winter wasn’t enough to push the ash down far enough into the dirt. Not enough moisture. And, this summer, with temps rising into the 100s and the hot dust blowing everywhere it was difficult to cool the travel trailer. I was worried I’d wear out the air conditioner. I worried all the time about every little thing I could imagine.

It was too hot outside to do fence line clean up, so not much got accomplished. My daughter and her boyfriend came up from living in Oregon to help me take care of things because I think I was a little bit of a basket case for a while. They put up electric fencing to fence off some pastures so I could bring the horses back from the expense of boarding. Cows and most goats had been sold off. No hay to feed except what a couple of wonderful farmers gave me to get me by. Some of the local ranchers lost their haystacks so it was impossible to get hay locally. I couldn’t buy and store hay anyway because my horses were scattered for boarding and for a while I had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to do it.

It’s been a rough go, but my barn with an apartment is now almost complete and should be done by spring. Rock Land Builders (Johnson Brothers) is doing the work and it is beautiful. They are the ones who built the huge barn for me a couple of years ago and now, since it was lost in the fire, are rebuilding it in the most perfect way. I will wait til next year to work on a house. It had become difficult to think about building for a while because of the price of lumber going up 200%. I just couldn’t do it. Right now I just need to get my barn in. I’ve got horses to shelter. No cows, but I have cow horses.

It looks to me like we may have a blustery winter and I have decided not to wait it out here on the ranch. The building I’ve got going on won’t be done for a while and it’s already snowing. My daughter will stay on the ranch and take care of the horses and ride on cows for the local ranchers because that’s what she loves doing. I’m going to stay with the friend I had spent this past year with since the fire. I want to be warm without a struggle. I am forever grateful to my friend for being there for me through all this and offering me a house to share so that I could try to recover my life. Friendship of that caliber is a precious thing.

I’ll probably be back again to my ranch when the apartment is ready and then things will come together more quickly. I can’t help but think it’s all going to work out for me. I just need to concentrate on being patient with myself and going with the flow of a new life. And maybe I’ll try to enjoy myself a little more. Wouldn’t hurt.