PALISADES, Wash. — Molly Linville saw the lightning bolt strike just behind the hilltop about a mile west of her house. The plume of smoke was instant. Then came flames.
Linville spotted the strike from the front windows of the adobe-brick-stucco house her husband’s grandfather built in 1921. She was eating a late lunch at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, June 26. She called authorities. Other lightning strikes in the area had been reported.
“The response was awesome,” she later said.
Fire burned through grass and sage brush down the hillside. U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Grant County firefighters and private crews arrived and bulldozed a fireline at the base of the hillside about a quarter mile from her house at the mouth of Sutherland Canyon.
“They saved our house. They worked like I would expect firefighters who are 25 (years of age) to work,” Linville said.
She remained uneasy that night, getting up every couple of hours to check on things. The wind shifted, blowing down the Moses Coulee (valley) away from her house.
But Tuesday morning the fire was out. Linville was relieved.
But two other lightning strikes caused fires that burned two miles down coulee, merging at Connet Grade and Francis Canyon, also known as Frank’s Canyon. Linville’s herd of 60 mother cows, plus calves and four bulls were grazing across the valley floor from the canyon.
“All day fire was coming down the grade very slowly. Planes and helicopters were dumping on it. Four brush trucks were watching. Nothing was being done from the ground. It was all air attack,” Linville said.
Neighbors were nervous about no ground effort.
One of them, rancher Justin Sachs, offered to cut a fireline with his backhoe at the mouth of Francis Canyon but was turned away by U.S. Forest Service personnel who told him he had no fire training.
“I have a pretty ‘spidy sense.’ I could kind of tell something was going to happen,” Linville said. “I said to a neighbor, ‘They aren’t going to do anything, are they?’ and he said, ‘I don’t think so.’ So I drove back to my house (in her pickup) and got my ATV and my dog.”
Fire reached the valley floor about 8:45 p.m.
Linville, 40, on her ATV and her Border Collie, Stinker, started moving their cows 15 minutes before the fire jumped Palisades Road, burned where the cows had been and fanned north and south on the east side of the valley and climbed hills eastward, claiming thousands of acres of rangeland in Douglas and Grant counties.
“We got the cows to safe pasture at the house. Without moving them they’d probably all be dead,” Linville said.
She found three cows that has been missing and their calves the next morning and marveled that they survived.
“There was no preparation for what was going to happen when the fire reached the valley floor. No line being dug, no water being put on it,” she said.
Linville said about 5,500 of 6,000 acres of pasture and rangeland that she and her husband, David, own, were burned.
He works for a company teaching nuclear proliferation detection and was in the Dominican Republic, she said.
“Everytime there’s a disaster, he’s somewhere else, but my neighbors take good care of me,” she said.
She’s frustrated no attempt was made to save her grazing grounds, but said the homes, cattle and orchards that were saved are more important.
Sachs, 32, helped Linville dig fire breaks and protect her hay stacks with water hoses. Other neighbors did the same at their ranches.
The fire could have been stopped where it crossed the road but Douglas County firefighters blew a hose and retreated, Sachs said. They also were squabbling over where the fire district line ended, he said.
Sachs lost a few bales of hay and the edges of his alfalfa field were scorched. He blamed “incompetency of leadership” for fire agencies missing “three opportunities” to stop the fire before it spread significantly and reached Grant County.
“There are a lot of unhappy people up here,” he said.
“I can’t address that. I don’t know of any information to lend either way. We have as many resources organized as we can. We run into different opinions on most fires and are always told we could do better,” Nick Mickel, firefighter spokesman, said when asked to respond to Sachs’ comments.
“I know radio and cell coverage in that area is pretty limited. There’s steep canyons and gullies and communication was a real challenge,” Mickel said.
Wednesday, firefighters from many agencies were on the scene.
“They had lots of crews here willing to do firelines and stop places but were getting no direction,” said Dave Billingsley, 74, a Palisades rancher. He said all of the 37,891 acres burned in the Sutherland and Straight Hollow fires was public or private rangeland for cattle.
‘We were fortunate’
“We were fortunate. A lot of retardant drop (Wednesday) kept it from spreading toward our cattle. A fence burned, otherwise we’re good,” Billingsley’s wife, Charlotte, said.
Thursday morning, rancher Jan Biram stopped at the Linvilles on her way down coulee.
“We moved 78 (cows) yesterday, short 16 with 10 of those we think are OK but six we don’t know about. They weren’t in a good spot but they may turn out fine,” she told Linville, adding, “My husband’s daughter in Eltopia has pasture for six pair and you’re welcome to it.”
After Biram left, Linville said she’s not sure about boarding out her cows where she can’t check them every day. Eltopia is 100 miles southeast. She said she’ll probably graze them on 40 acres of grass that was going to be hay.
“We won’t sell as much hay as we normally do,” she said.
Friday, Biram said five of their other six cows and some bulls were found. Her husband, Mike, spent a couple days riding range looking for them.
They lost a lot of rangeland in Whiskey Dick Canyon that’s “pretty well burned out,” she said.
Bill Sieverkropp, 58, a rancher atop Monument Hill south of Moses Coulee, said one of his 150 mother cows died in the fire.
“We feel pretty fortunate. It could have been a lot worse. We got the cows out as flames were coming over the ridge,” he said. “We moved them to summer fallow where they were safe.”
He said his cousin lost 50 to 75 acres of wheat and that other neighbors had wheat fields scorched on the edges.
“It was still green enough that it wouldn’t get going. Another week or two and it would have a whole different story,” he said.
Sieverkropp said he’s most frustrated with the firefighters’ lack of effort to put the fire out.
“There were a whole bunch of firefighters on Wednesday sitting on roads watching the fire, on Overen Road off Baird Springs Road,” he said. “I never saw one fire rig leave the county road to go out and even try to put the fire out. If they could not fight the fire with a bulldozer or airplane, they were not going to leave the county road to do it.
“I complained and said we need to get brush rigs up there. It fell on deaf ears. No one would leave the road. In the last conversation I had with a fire boss, he said they’d lost firefighters in the past and have to think about safety. I totally agree with that, but you can still fight the fire and be safe. They don’t seem to understand that rangeland is part of our livelihood.”
When fire jumped Overen Road and burned a small patch on the other side, firefighters used a bulldozer to build a line around it when the job could have been done just as well with shovels, he said.
He said a U.S. Forest Service fire manager told him that they want to know what jurisdiction a given area is before they fight fire because they want to know where their money will come from.
“It’s all about money. It’s become a business more than something you do to help your neighbor,” Sieverkropp said. “We need a change in fire management philosophy. It would be great to explain it to The Donald (President Donald Trump). He’s a kind of down to earth, practical ‘let’s get things done’ type of guy.”