Humbled by stories of Northern California residents trying to care for livestock without feed, supplies or fencing after the devastating Klamathon fire, an Ashland woman is spearheading efforts for a large-scale act of neighborly kindness.
Residents of the rural community of Hornbrook could sympathize more than most Thursday as flames destroyed most of the community of Paradise, California.
News headlines reminded Hornbrook residents of the disaster that struck their hometown July 5 and 6 as the Klamathon fire decimated miles of fencing, barns, houses, grazing fields, trees and hay supplies.
Lifelong Hornbrook resident Dani Lemos says the feeling of driving away from nearly 60 horses and donkeys at the R Ranch that day, flames surrounding the ranch, is not something she’ll soon forget.
What began as a typical day of trail rides and caring for animals — despite reports of a fire headed the opposite direction — quickly shifted to a frantic evacuation as fire lurched across the freeway, halting traffic and destroying everything in its path.
Lemos, whose ancestors homesteaded in Hornbrook, works as a wrangler at the R Ranch on Ditch Creek Road. The 20-year-old said she never could have imagined facing the reality of trying to rescue 60 terrified horses and donkeys.
Wranglers corralled the animals into a pen while fire crews battled nearby flames and an air tanker, as a last-ditch effort to help animals survive, dropped fire retardant on the terrified livestock.
“The pilot said later he didn’t want to do it but felt like it was the only chance they had to keep the fire from getting them,” Lemos said.
“The whole scene was just unbelievable. The winds we get here are pretty crazy, so that made everything worse but, even then, I don’t think anyone could have ever imagined ”
Most of the animals from the ranch ultimately escaped the flames, either by being turned loose by firemen or by breaking through fencing.
“I left bawling my eyes out,” Lemos said. “I went to my gramma’s and I said, ‘I don’t think the ranch is going to be there anymore. We have to get out now.’
“R Ranch is a second home for me. My grandfather helped build a lot of it. He helped build the bunkhouse that burned down, the stables, probably a lot of the fencing it’s been a huge part of my life.”
She added, “We went back to check after the fire had gone through, and it gave us hope when we didn’t find corpses. They all were hiding up in the hills.”
All told, the fire burned 38,000 acres between July 5 and July 21. At a time when ranchers and farmers rely on grazing fields, their food supplies were gone.
“We didn’t lose any animals, but we lost so many barns, most of our hay and our hay fields were scorched,” said Lemos.
“We had to sell one of our herds because we had no way to feed them. Now we have a little over 100 head of Angus cattle coming in from the hills for winter and we are not going to be able to feed them, either.”
Lemos said her story was repeated by dozens of other property owners who were left devastated — financially and emotionally — from the fire.
Jana Toney, an Ashland resident touched by stories she heard from friends and on social media, held a small hay drive, but her initial efforts were thwarted by a rainstorm.
“We wanted so badly to help in some way, and then it just poured rain. It felt like a slap in the face. First, the fire. Then our effort to get them some help and here come the rains,” Toney said.
Racing against the clock, Toney has driven to Grants Pass, Klamath Falls and other communities posting fliers about the situation in Hornbrook. Her goal? To purchase a truckload of hay in addition to fencing materials to contain animals in time for winter.
“I was up at my family’s ranch on the Greensprings when the fire started, and we were all on notice. It could have very easily headed our way,” said Toney, who runs an investment company and cleaning business.
“I just felt like I needed to do something to help, that the community needed to do something to help.”
Toney said the situation could go from bad to worse once winter comes.
“The situation is already dire. All the pasturelands are basically burned, and they’ve been having to buy feed since July,” Toney said.
“It’s hard to feed and fence because of the cost. We’re hearing stories of people who can afford to feed but not replace the fencing that was lost or vice versa. A lot of them have insurance, but they’re still dealing with red tape. The down fencing also means animals are roaming into the roadways it’s just a nightmare for this community.”
Facing difficult odds, both Toney and Lemos try to be optimistic. Lemos is counting on grass returning to charred fields next spring. Toney hopes, in the meantime, for neighboring communities to show some love.
“Our plan is to fill up a truck full of hay to take down there for immediate relief and to help buy fencing materials to contain the animals,” she said.
“These are resilient people who are not used to asking for help. And they’re not asking for help, even now. But I’m saying, ‘Shouldn’t we as a community be helping our neighbors in need?’”
To donate to provide hay and fencing materials to Hornbrook residents, see www.gofundme.com/klamathon-fire-fund or contact Toney via email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone 541-621-2462.
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at email@example.com.