It's Always Been Home: Sticking It Out After Fire And Mud In Washington's Methow Valley

Sep 5, 2014

Kent Stokes, 28, can’t believe who survived the Carlton Complex wildfire.

It was both his pet cat, and his arch nemesis: an-early morning chattering gray squirrel.

When Stokes returned to the ruins of his burnt-up shop and home he was happy to find at least the cat.

“I heard him meowing through the brush or whatever was left,” Stokes said. “He came running out. He came through fine – not a singe mark on him. The squirrel and the cat made it through all that fire.” In Washington state alone, an estimated 500 to 600 cattle have been lost in dramatic wildfires this summer. Stokes is a fifth-generation rancher here and his family lost hundreds of head.

“There’s pretty good family history of big events like the ’48 flood and bad winters,” Stokes said. “But they never talked of a fire like this. And it just wasn’t to this scale.”

Stokes said his house cat was glad to be found and get a meal. Another thing saved after five days and nights of fighting is his parents’ house. That’s where he lives now.

But the losses are crushing. The fires stripped about 20,000 acres of his family’s grazing land.

A landscape disappeared

In a pickup, Stokes crawled up the steep hillsides and deep canyons looking over the damage. In boyhood he learned how to find his way out here. The rocks, creeks, trees – they’re the backcountry signposts. But now it’s a cooked landscape of ash and gaping earth.

“You know most all of that is gone and different,” he said. “And when I was riding up there looking for survivors, it’s pretty easy for me to get lost or turned around because I just didn’t recognize where I was at anymore.”

In the July firefight on the Stokes place the family had to decide what to save first: Massive stacks of winter hay, shops, barns, tractors, several family homes and the animals they depend on. After the fire had gone and he was riding to find lost cattle, Stokes came upon a lone cow. He knew her well by her ear tag.

“Her skin looked like an elephant,” he said.

The burnt-over cow was having trouble breathing. And she wouldn’t move back toward the ranch. “You know personally, because she had that will to live, I would have liked to give her a chance,” Stokes said. “But the merciful thing was to put a bullet in her and end it right then and there so that’s what we did.”

Decades of breeding lost

Stokes can name off ear tags of most of his top cows. He has hundreds of numbers in his head, and how they connect to certain bulls or cows his parents or grandparents raised.

“It was definitely tough,” Stokes said, squinting a bit. “Especially a good cow like that.”

The deepest fire wound on the Stokes place runs blood red. The family lost 215 head of cattle this year. And all those bloodlines are gone. Stokes explains he can’t just go out and buy more to replace them.

“We have long cold winters but also hot summers,” he said. “You can’t just have a cow with thin skin or something. She has to tolerate weather extremes. She has to be able to travel several miles to water. And find that forage. And take her calf along.”

Stokes said building back those hardy traits for life in the Methow could take decades.

“People along a highway see some black cows out there they all look alike, or they’re all the same,” he said. “But I guess when you’ve grown up around it, there are little minute differences in every animal.”

In a cool meadow of tall grass near Beaver Creek were some of the smallest survivors -- four calves. Stokes squatted down beside one calf that didn’t even attempt to struggle to her feet.

“This is the worst calf right here,” he said softly. “You see, her feet are just … burnt down to nubs.”

Washed away

The cattle lowed softly as he moved through them. He gingerly brought hay, then a tub of water. He placed the offerings beneath slick noses.

Stokes had been smearing his patients with medical salve and doling out pain meds. Then the night after this pastoral scene, gully-washers and torrents of mud barreled down this canyon.

The violent storm washed away corrals Stokes had just built. Two irrigation pumps for alfalfa are gone. One of those injured calves was swept away.

Stokes said the grass will eventually come back better. The trees and shrubs will come back too.

“It’s just a matter of how long,” he said. “And that’s kind of the tough thing for us is that we’re so dependent on the land for our livelihood.”

Living off the land means you’re on Mother Nature’s clock. As Stokes surveyed the damage the tick, tick, tick of an irrigation center pivot counted off the seconds on a nearby alfalfa field.

Stokes hopes he can stay in this land he loves. It’s land his forefathers settled on in the early 1900s. Stokes said he’s tired of disaster. He had to pause and collect his voice now and then.

These are the last days of summer. Stokes said time is running low to put up hay and there’s 20 miles of fence to build before the ground freezes.

This coming spring the snow will melt, and with it more mud. And with the hillsides stripped bare the mud could come down in waves for years.