Written by: Shannon Cram on August, 19, 2015

August 13, 2015; Thursday afternoon we received our evacuation notice as the “Soda” fire devoured the Owyhee landscape. The firestorm consumed everything in its path. Ravaging the rangelands and killing wildlife and livestock alike. Generations of dreams gobbled up in an instant. I struggled to stifle the panic inside me as we quickly mustered trucks, trailers and family members to make a hasty trip to Silver. Homeowners were urged to get any valuables out immediately, because the roads would be closed by nightfall. A knot formed in the pit of my stomach as we raced through Paul’s grabbing flats of drinking water to leave with Silver City Fire and Rescue. Then on to fuel the rigs and extra gas cans for ATV’s, chainsaws or whatever may need it.

As we crested the hill above Dan’s Ferry Service, the fire front came into plain view. Thick billowing plumes of smoke, vicious flames licking the landscape… the knot tightened in my stomach as we skirted the war zone where man frantically battled nature. A quick call to mom in the car ahead to see if she had alerted my brother to our situation. She confirmed she had and noted that she also contacted her prayer team (warriors…God bless them all!). When we approached the partially blocked Silver City turn off, a news truck came into sight. With little hesitation, we drove around the barricade and barreled up the hill. As our empty trailer rattled over the New York summit, we took a moment to survey the landscape below. To the untrained eye, it was difficult to gauge the distance of the fire, but we had been told it was within seven miles of us. Knowing that the news had previously reported the movement of the fire at roughly 1 to 1 ½ miles every eight minutes, I mince no words when I say that terror struck me… at least briefly. We started our rapid descent down the bumpy, dust filled road and within minutes we rolled into town. Neighbor after neighbor was hastily loading their “valuables” onto trailers and into the backs of trucks. We hesitated in front of the school house at the bottom of the hill and switched to four wheel drive so we could navigate up our long, steep driveway. Once in the yard, I jumped out of the truck and a strange feeling of calm flooded over me. The sun shined brightly in the crystal blue sky and a gentle breeze tousled my hair. Had I not just seen the disaster unfolding in the valley below, I would have taken this to be like any other summer afternoon in Silver. I marveled at the quiet and calm that surrounded me, not even a hint of smoke in the air.

Suddenly brought back to reality by the slamming of the car doors behind me, I knew we must move forward quickly to determine what to load and what to leave. As I stepped into my beautiful new kitchen, just finished a month ago, I thought back on twelve years of others questioning my sanity for not having my kitchen be the first renovation to complete. I would never stand for it some would say. But I knew in my heart that I wanted to save the best till last and the day that I could bake cookies in my kitchen with my daughter would mean that my renovation woes would be over! I looked around the room and admired the photo memory board that we made from a salvaged original house screen. The happy memories of friends and family posted there. Then I panned around the room and saw my late uncle’s glassware. I moved to the dining room which boasts the original hand painted wood graining done by Jack Stoddard’s son, pre-1900. A lump formed in my throat that I could not swallow. I moved around the corner to my Grandmother’s hutch and admired China sets from both sides of my family…now tears welled up in my eyes.

Then came to mind the lion’s head sideboard was brought to the Stoddard Mansion by the Turner family, (second homeowners). We were privileged to meet two of the Turner boys a couple summers ago when they returned to spread their mother’s ashes on War Eagle. They recounted the story of being put in the back of a pickup truck, as young boys, with this mammoth piece of furniture and being charged with its safety up the long, bumpy hill. They were thrilled to see the house being meticulously restored, and moved to see the furniture piece they brought up still in place. Reflecting on the rich family histories told by each precious artifact was more than I could stand. I ducked into the bathroom as tears stung my cheeks and muffled the sobs that overcame me. How do we discern what stays and what goes? I found the decision far too overwhelming! At one point, I asked how do we move the whole house…not one thing is more important than another. Twelve difficult years of painstaking restoration filled with thoughtful renovations which were careful to not compromise the original historical structure. My heart ached!

I stepped out onto the front porch overlooking the town and watched as trailer after trailer loaded with ATV’s and UTV’s made their hasty exit. Initially, I was shocked to see “toys”, not “treasures” leaving town. But after more careful consideration, I reasoned that my neighbors shared my plight…how do you decide what stays and what goes? One could easily determine that the “toys” were very expensive and simple to move quickly. One town member shared this struggle and suggested taking irreplaceable photos, small family heirlooms and moderately sized pieces of furniture. Hurried travel down our bumpy, rutted road would likely destroy delicate antique furniture anyway.

It was at that moment, that my jaw set and I was squarely determined that nothing be lost to the nasty inferno. I consulted with family members and we quickly decided on a few family heirlooms that could be grabbed at the last minute if necessary. Then we all agreed that our time would be best spent finding out what needed to be done to fireproof our precious town. With work gloves and water bottles in hand, we trekked up the hill to the Hyslop house located behind ours. The Hyslop’s and a small group of dedicated townspeople sought out and received first responder and firefighter training several years ago. They have worked tirelessly to obtain equipment and resources to defend our town against fire and other perils ever since. They invested much time and effort in acquiring and developing an alternate water source from the abandoned Morning Star Mine on the North end of town. This alternate water source is hugely beneficial as it provides ample water for firefighting without depleting the limited town supply. Without question, these were the people we needed to align ourselves with. They would know how to utilize ready volunteers!

As expected, they were already in the process of mustering all volunteers for a meeting at Dave Wilpur’s house downtown. First on the agenda was who was staying in town, who was going and how do we keep everyone safe and accounted for. Then on to reports on the fire movement, anticipated problematic storm fronts and how do we keep communications open with each other and the outside world (valley incident commands and nervous homeowners). Then on to the long list of fire mitigation needs… hooking up and running fire hoses in strategic places, setting up and filling of portable water holding tanks, filling of the helicopter dip tank, damming up Jordan Creek to create drafting pools for the firetruck, etc. and lots of buildings to de-debris. A quick accounting of accumulated resources, generation of a needs list for anyone coming up from the valley and then team/task assignments and we hit the ground running. I must say, for being a bunch of untrained misfits, we managed to work like a well-oiled machine knocking out task after task until our town was in a highly defendable position with volunteers standing at the ready. For nearly a week straight we toiled over fire mitigation needs in Silver. Up early for breakfast, usually bacon, eggs & pancakes at the Hyslop’s. Here, we received incident command updates from the valley, reassigned tasks and training needs and off we’d go to work. We’d meet again at the Hotel for lunch where the staff blessed us with prepared meals. Some provided by them, some by Silver City Fire and Rescue and others by grateful homeowners. We’d recount what our teams had accomplished, reassign tasks, get our daily dose of thankyous from anxious homeowners and then back to work till dinnertime. This was the time of day that we all looked forward to since it meant a hot shower and rest ahead. Although I doubt strongly if anyone actually slept much, but it still felt good to rest our weary bones.

Finally, we got word from the valley that the “Soda” fire containment numbers were up and the threat to Silver City was diminished. Praise be to God, this was welcome news!

Looking back, this is some of the most tiring, but most rewarding work I’ve done in a long time. Knowing that you’re making a worthwhile contribution is something so elemental to the human experience.

Recently, we received the after action review from Silver City Fire and Rescue. In it, was all of the technical aspects of what was accomplished during the fire mitigation process. What we did right, what needed improving and miscellaneous action items …but the one thing it wasn’t able to embody, was the incredible sense of community that overcame every one of us. All individual agendas, ideals, and differences were put aside. Everyone marched to the same beat and how sweet the sound of unity in our community! Very few of us entered this venture with any special abilities or experience, but every one of us made a useful contribution just the same! From the boots on the ground, to the cooks in the kitchen…we all pitched in and made a difference. It was truly amazing to see what willing hearts and a common goal produced in our community. This experience has taught us how important it is to get involved. It’s not OK to become complacent or apathetic. Don’t assume that you can’t make a difference, or worse, that someone else will carry the load. Even writing a kind word and showing an attitude of gratitude to others can make a difference! We were very encouraged every time we heard positive words from grateful homeowners at our daily meetings.

Many people’s lives were changed in an instant from this ferocious fire. I breathe a deep sigh of relief that our wonderful historic town was spared! However, generations of ranchers that relied on the Owyhee rangelands for grazing their cattle will feel the impact for years to come. Deer, sage grouse and a multitude of other wildlife too numerous to list will suffer in the aftermath. Some creatures and their habitat so decimated that they may be reassigned as “endangered”.

Silver City Fire and Rescue is a privately funded organization and staffed only by volunteers. The “Soda” fire gave SCF&R the opportunity to put training and theories in to action. We primarily met with great success, but during this process, some deficiencies were identified and resources were depleted. A wish list of sorts has been generated. Many of the items are necessary to keep SCF&R in an operation ready state. This organization was started because people cared enough to get involved and that is the way it will be able to continue.

These are just my personal reflections of the recent devastating “Soda” fire. I really didn’t start writing with any direction in mind and there’s no hidden agenda. I just put down on paper the thoughts and feelings that consumed me since having this experience. However, if after reading my ramblings you feel motivated to get involved and make a difference somewhere, I would like to make a few suggestions to guide you.

But first; THANK YOU for visiting our great town! Your open house ticket purchase helps to pay for our winter watchman. The watchman stays here through the winter to protect our town and these awesome historic buildings from the ravages of winter and would-be vandals. It also helps fund updates and improvements to our antiquated town water system.

Silver City is a state treasure worth protecting. The Owyhee rangelands and the cattleman are a state resource that desperately need our help right now. If you are not already making an impactful difference in your own community, please consider making a difference in one of these.

There is a SCF&R store in downtown Silver City. It’s full of unique antiques and collectibles, most created and donated by local artisans to raise funds for Silver City Fire and Rescue. Check it out…you just might find something that needs to go home with you. ☺ Additionally, you can visit our SCF&R friends online at www.silvercityfireandrescue.org, and consider making a tax deductible contribution there.

If you would like to help the Owyhee cattlemen who’s rangelands have been devastated and livelihoods threatened, then contact them online at www.owyheecattlemen.com, or by phone: #(208) 896-4104, or by e-mail: owyheecattlemen@gmail.com. These contacts are matching resources, (ie, supplies, tools, laborers) with needs. If you would like to make a monetary donation, checks can be made payable to the: Owyhee Cattleman’s Heritage Foundation.