Monday, September 14, 2015

The Butte Fire & Bobbi Laughton


With the clean mountain air, the lack of traffic and congestion, the cool temperatures even when heat is bearing down on the valley below, the ponderosa pine, the cedar, the redwoods, the variety of oak, and of course the manzanita among the other flora and fauna, all make living in the Sierra's simply a beautiful place to live.

With the drought, the years of ground growth, the lack of harvesting the forest, one knows that along with the beauty of the Sierra's is the threat of forest fires. Last Wednesday that threat became more than a threat. A blown PG&E transformer sparked the Butte Fire that afternoon around 2pm. That fire is now one of the largest in California history.

My wife called from Jackson a little after the power went out to say that she was bringing home chicken for dinner, and wanted to know if there was something else that I might need from town. This is common courtesy, but it's also a pretty essential way of life when one lives up-country and the town of Jackson, our hub for grocery stores and other conveniences, is located 18 miles away. I told her not to rush as the power was out. She said part of Jackson was without power as well.

Since we always keep an "old fashion" land-line phone, a rotary phone, connected for just these sorts of emergencies because unlike a cordless phone, the old phone doesn't need to be plugged into power to work. Immediately, neighbors started calling our home.

Friends wanted to know everything from if I had heard what caused the outage to whether or not I was opening the American Legion Post that night. After my wife arrived at home, I finished a few chores while we still had light. It was then that we got a call about the fire starting in Amador County on their side of the Mokelumne River.

I let my wife know that I was running over to the Legion to find out if they were alright without power. Our small community of Glencoe only has an emergency fire station that is hardly ever manned, a post office, and our American Legion Post which also acts as our Community Hall for our 189 population. As a Vice Commander, I'm tasked with running most aspects of the post. So yes, it wasn't out of the ordinary for me to jump in my truck to run over there to see if they were out of power and find out if my on-duty bartender was staying open as long as he could. It is Glencoe's gathering place.

An earlier phone call advised me that a fire was started on the Amador County side of the Mokelumne River when a PG&E transformer gave out. By the time I arrived at the Legion, all of two minutes away from my home, I was told that they got the information that the fire was spreading fast and that it had already jumped the river to this county, Calaveras County. It was apparent that the fire was not contained as another call had told me. When the fire jumped the river, that was a big deal because no one thought it would. Now it was apparent that the winds were now driving it up the side of the dry canyon of the Mokelumne River. The question now became what direction would it take?

I tried getting in touch with my friend Steve Duman, who is also an officer of our post, to find out what he knew since he lives closer to that area. Then phone calls came in saying that Steve and his wife lost their home. After that, my wife and I got the word that the fire was racing up toward Glencoe faster than most of us expected. The first report was that the fire consumed 400 acres, then reports said 1,200 acres were lost along with 6 homes.

About 7pm, my wife and I left to check on Steve and his wife Janet. We were stopped about a mile from his home. The California Highway Patrolman who stopped us said that their home was lost.

My wife and I could see the glow coming from down Highway 26 in his direction. Across the canyon, we were both shocked by the sight of the fire coming up the canyon. The fire was definitely headed toward Glencoe.

Before heading home to pack, we stopped and checked on a few friends to make sure they grabbed their home owner's insurance papers and other documents before they leave. We didn't wait for someone to give us 10 minutes to pack. We stopped off at a friend's house to check on them and their children, then as soon as we got back -- my wife and I started to pack for an evacuation right there and then.

The friend's we checked on, Kevin and Bret Haight, joined up with us after they were loaded up and we monitored the phone and the radio for any changes. Kevin and Bret left a little before 2am. They returned home since it seemed that we'd be safe for the night.

My position with the Legion makes me the contact in case the County Emergency Services needs me to open the post for use during this. I contacted them earlier for instructions and was told to standby for a call one way or another.

The next morning, Thursday morning, we found out that over 4,000 acres have been overtaken. And yes, phone calls from neighbors and also from our family was coming in. Many with news we had not heard and all wanting to help in one way or another. 

Besides our safety, one huge concern for my three brothers and sisters was my horses and their safety. I kept letting them know that all was being handled the best I knew how. Yes, with a lot of advice from Emergency Services.

About 1:40pm after checking on my neighbors, I got the word from Emergency Services that they were not going to use the Legion and that we must evacuate. I made a couple of calls to others in the area, including some who were already at the Legion, advising them of what I had been told and that they need to leave now.

At home, I search for a few more things. Small things such as family pictures that can't be replaces. I was on our deck looking at our roof and the bellowing smoke over the trees from behind my property. Cinders and burnt leaves floated down and I saw a few ambers and thought this is just not a good sign with no water or power. 

I cut open 9 bales of alfalfa and left it for our horses. I hoped and prayed that I was doing right and they'd make it like I'd hope they did. The Cal Fire told me they may keep an eye on them while they use our front pasture for a staging area. I hoped they would.   

Highway 26 from Highway 49 at Mokelumne Hill all the way up the nine miles to Glencoe was closed because of the fire, and yes mandatory evacuation was set into place. My wife packed up her three cats, and we had Holly our dog with us, and we soon left for the safety of Ione where my 80 year old mom lives. God Bless having my mom nearby.

So all in all, by a little after 2pm, my wife and I left headed to Rail Road Flat because we were told the road up to West Point was already closed. 

As for our horses, as I said before, I had spoken to County Emergency Services about our horses and we talked about my best options. Since, unlike other properties up-country, our property has pasture land, I was told that they would be OK if they were turned loose to get away from the fire.

Even on Friday when my wife and I went back in to see for ourselves just how bad it was and if we could help others, before leaving again I was told by Cal Fire that my plan was good because our home and big trees were in the back of the property away from the open pasture in front. I was told the fire would be held to the back of the property or stopped at the ridge above our place.

While we got the word that the fire had grown to 15,000 acres, then to 31,000 acres, I felt better about my plan after I was told the fire shifted again and was moving away from Glencoe. And while I was OK with my livestock plan, I soon found out that others were not as fortunate to have open pasture and were indeed trying to get their animals out and far away.

I then found out that a few folks were going in to pick up horses and other livestock from threatened areas. And frankly, while I was certain that our horses would be able to survive with the water and feed and staying to the front of our property until the fire passes, I found out that there were folks with stock trailers picking up livestock in my area as well.

As of September 13th, the Butte Fire has:

Total Fire Personnel: 4,541  
Total Fire Engines: 499  
Total Fire crews: 87
Total Helicopters: 18
Total Dozers: 118
Total Water Tenders: 57

From those flying the aircraft to the men and women driving the Water Tender, these people are blessings from God. Yes, they are Godsends.

I've heard that term for years, that so-and-so was a "Godsend." And frankly, there are those who are there at the right moment to lend a hand or be of great importance at the right moment. But as for Bobbie Laughton, well I believe she was put here for a reason -- especially during this emergency.

Bobbi Laughton is a true Godsend.

I spoke with Bobbi Laughton and told her my plan. She wasn't as sure about it as Cal Fire or the County was. She asked where I lived and how many horses was there?

I told her which ones would be easy to catch if I went in to do so, and which ones were still feral horses that have a home but little training. The other thing was that the roads were closed to all traffic on Friday. While they were letting in livestock rescue earlier, I was told that had ended. And yes, California Highway Patrol had positioned officers at the road to stop people from entering. Bobbi and I discussed this, and how her volunteers could not get in to help me even if we wanted to.

As busy as she was, she took my number and I thought that was that. That is, until about 10pm on Friday night when I got a call from her daughter Desiree.

Yes, they somehow got into Glencoe and pulled into that open pasture and loaded 4 of my 5 horses into a stock trailer and headed for Jackson. Desiree, like her mom, doesn't understand the word "can't." She said she had gotten into Glencoe and picked up four of our five horses before anyone knew she was there and waved as she was leaving.

Earlier in the day, I found out that the fire backtracked and was heading straight for Glencoe. So yes, when she said she got out 4 of 5 and couldn't get that crazy BLM horse of ours, I was shocked and thankful. Frankly, thinking about what I was advised to do with my horses was taking it's toll and I was very relieved that they were out.

When I passed by earlier that day, I wanted to talk to Bobbi Laughton in person and thank her for the help on the phone. But frankly, I didn't stop and see her simply because when I arrived everyone was moving horses and feed and livestock panels to make more temporary pens and there was no need to get in the way.

After getting the call from Desiree, I told her that I would be at her Mom's and meet her and our horses. When I arrived, nothing had changed from earlier. It was controlled chaos in an entirely good way!

Bobbi Laughton and her crews of volunteer livestock rescuers are amazing folks -- everyone of them. They have zeal and determination and smarts. And yes, I watched as some of the greatest people in the world came together to help others.

Bobbi is the Commanding General of the operation, and sketchy cell-phone reception, dry eraser boards, and great assistants is how she keeps a handle on a situation that she said, "took on a life of it's own."

She is a great lady who I had met once before when I wanted to do an article on her starting a rescue facility. She is a country gal from the word go. She is a wonderful women who, at that point on Friday night, was running on only two hours of sleep since Wednesday morning. Yes, I was talking with her on Friday night at 10:30pm and she only had two hours of sleep in three days.

Bobbi Laughton is what being American is really about. She is what the American woman really is. She is kind and loving, strong and determined, and yes determined to do right. She is the gal who rarely gets any attention, or is saluted for being the person that others can look to and respect and emulate.

I was called on Saturday morning by Mike Richards who told me that he was going to take a shot at going after Dancer, my BLM mustang, who is still as feral as the day is long. I asked him if I could go with him instead of taking two vehicles. He said he'd meet me at the Laughton Ranch.

Mike Richards is retired. But like most of us who worked until we are able to follow our dream, he is now a Horse Trainer with a real good reputation in our area. While on the way to get Dancer, we talked about her and how much training I put in her. How my own health stopped me from doing more and how she was pretty herd-bound.

We also talked about working through the night rescuing livestock and carting them back to the Laughton Ranch and more about ourselves. It was not hard to tell instantly that Mike is a good man.

We tried to get in but were turned back by California Highway Patrolmen who did not want to talk about it as they had bigger things to worry about like not having us in the way of on-coming emergency equipment. We definitely understood. They too are doing a great job!

After getting some chow, we returned to Jim and Bobbi Laughton's ranch. I found out that the Laughton Ranch had brought in more than 200 horses, and farmed out the overflow of horses to other ranches in the area. With the overflow, they rescued well over 300 horses -- but that figure doesn't even count the pigs, sheep, goats, cows, chickens, dogs, and cats that they rescued.

She was there and again surrounded by questions and having to make all sorts of decisions on the spot. I also found out that donations and feed and water and food for both the animals and the over 150 volunteers are coming in from all sorts of folks big and small. Yes, many sources, including Lowe's, The Feed Barn, Tractor Supply, grocery stores, and even farmers who are sending truckloads of hay.

While this is not over, I watched her crews feed off of Bobbie's sense of doing good for others. And yes, her goodness.
The vast majority of volunteers are mostly young people, mostly teens and those in their 20s, some older, but mostly young and all wonderful to the core. And frankly, the volunteers don't want anything in return. Nothing.

I was impressed to see the way they brought in trailer after trailer. They unload and feed and support the tired and the lost. When they are done with one task, they walk off like so many Champions feeling a sense of pride in simply doing good for others. It was wonderful to see.

Yes, while at the Laughton Ranch, I saw a sense of goodness gained by doing good. Godsends all. Yes, all were there as blessings from God in a time when blessings were needed. Angels in rubber boots and jeans, tired and working harder than they may ever again. And like their counter parts who are fighting the fire and saving homes, Bobbi Laughton's small army of volunteers are there doing the best they can during a bad situation to help in a positive way.

Yes, it's true. That's what's been going on at the Laughton Ranch since the Butte Fire has started. And yes, I feel absolutely blessed to have met such wonderful people. For their tireless devotion to others in need, I can't salute them enough. I can't praise them enough. I can't be proud of them enough.

We hear so much about the bad and the worse in the younger generation. But seeing these young Americans coming together for their parents, friends, neighbors, strangers, other Americans in need, it was all so encouraging. I saw who will inherit America. And frankly, I see the future in a much better light today than I did a few days ago.

They are the unsung. They are the best of the best. And yes, these are only the volunteers at the Laughton Ranch. During the Butte Fire, the community came together in many places big and small, from the County Fairgrounds to other ranches, Americans came together to help others for no reason than simply wanting to do good.

Those Godsends at the Laughton Ranch showed me that every generation has those who do not hesitate to step up to the challenges of the future. From the young man who raced home from Oroville, where he is going to college, to make sure that his parents evacuated safely, to the young gal who whispered "God Bless you" after she handed me the lead rope to one of my horses, America is in good hands.

And as for my BLM mustang that they couldn't catch that night? Along with the word that many of our homes in Glencoe have been spared, I've been told that Dancer is running around the open pasture in front of our property calling out for her four companions that will return home as soon as this thing is over.

And yes, blessings do take place even in the worst of times.

Tom Correa

Editor's Note: 

The pictures below were not a part of the original story above. I've included these recently to give more perspective of what took place.

At 7pm, this was what we saw facing Moke Hill from Robinson's hill on 26.
That first night near Mokelumne River
This is what the ridge behind lower Glencoe looked like a little more than 24 hours after it started near Moke Hill








When it was finally contained, this is the territory that the fire consumed. Yes, more than 70,000 acres. And if you notice, the fire actually hooked around Glencoe. If it weren't for the fire changing course, we would have lost our home as others did around us.

Tom Correa





7 comments:

  1. Thanks Tom for sharing your story....God Bless you & keep you and your family safe during these trying times...I'm glad you were able to get your animals out safely even tho Dancer decided to stay and watch over your land hoping to be reunited with her companions soon. (Hugs)

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  2. I am sorry for everyone's loss. So proud of everyone pulling together and helping one another.

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  3. It was very heartwarming to read your story. Yes, our younger generation is going to take good care of our world.

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  4. I too feel the same about Laughton Ranch. They came to my property after evacuation and without hesitation, saved my 6 chickens. I love horses but these chickens were my Collie's little family. So thank you to Kirk who came in and wrote in blue chalk on my driveway so i would know where they were and to the whole the rest of the team there.

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  5. as one of the volunteers at the Laughton ranch, the atmosphere is absolutely inspiring. There are so many incredible people working so hard, without complaint. There has not been one cross word. The question of what do you need, is followed by I will get that done. Kindest group of people I have ever met. Hearts of gold. This has been the most uplifting experience I have had in a very long time.

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  6. Yes... this made me cry... in a good way... Thank you so very much Tom! It was an absolute pleasure to meet you!
    -Jenn of "The War Room" Laughton Ranch

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