This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
Fire. It’s an ever-present reality during summers in Northern California, but you never really think it’s gonna happen to you…until it does. It was a mellow Sunday, futzputtering around the garden, getting ready to plant winter squash in the evening. After 4 o’clock, thinking about a cider. Phone call comes in: “there’s a fire at Brett’s.” I see the smoke column rising and realize that this is the real thing.
My heart starts pounding and I have to work hard to control myself. I gather my fire gear and change into my boots and Nomecs. I head north to the scene, a mere two parcels from my home and farm. The fire is raging, wind blowing from the south towards the ranch with the hundred year-old barn that we cherish.
I meet Echo, he has the quick attack fire engine and I park my truck off the road and jump in with him. We hit the fire at the head, spraying water on the burning grass and moving down the line. My brother Lito joins me and we add additional lengths of hose, putting out fire as we work our way along. Echo remains with the engine tending the pump and serving as a lookout.
The fire spots and flames leap around our hose, burning through the canvass as the water from the engine runs out. We switch to hand tools, looking around to reassess and regroup. I am breathing hard from the exertion and smoke, trying to fight down the panic. My mind shouts that these are our homes, our livelihoods, but I push it down.
The wind shifts and the fire changes direction; it is burning towards my neighbor’s, with my home and farm just beyond his parcel. We gather ourselves for the next attack. My uncle arrives with the Ford flatbed with a pump and 275 gallon tank on the back. The water saves my neighbor’s home and motorhome as we cut line around it and knock back the flames.
As we get a secure perimeter around the home, I realize that the wind is pushing the fire hard towards our family compound and my uncle and I jump into my truck. I race back to my place where I find the flames licking the end of my veggie tunnels and threatening the sheep pasture and pig barn.
As I come down the driveway I am filled with a deep foreboding; a voice whispers deep in my head “it’s all gonna burn.” I push the panic away and stop the truck, jumping out and shouting to my uncle to take the vehicle down to his house. I race to the back of the greenhouse and turn on the sprinklers and the hose and I spray out the burning grass and plastic.
I look towards my house and see the flames reaching towards the driveway that separates my life from the fire. A neighbor arrives at the same time and he is calm and ready, which brings my racing emotions back under control. We get a hose run from the garden and he starts to spray water while I run to get the fire pump and hook it into the system. I now have 11,000 gallons at the ready and I start the pump. The fire sprinklers come on around my house, wetting the garden and me and the neighbor hooks in the fire hoses and starts to push the flames back.
I sprint back to the upper pasture, past the hoophouse that has begun to catch fire again. The sheep are milling and bleating in fear and Cal Fire is arriving and opening their enclosure to give them an escape route. The fire is burning the pasture, and my hose that I water the sheep with is starting to melt. I grab it up and spray the flames, stopping the hose from melting and knocking the front down. I run down to the hoophouse again and spray it out for the second time, then I run back down to see how Pops’ place is faring.
Brother Lito and I run a hose lay out to fight the oncoming flames, moving across steep and rugged terrain as best we can and putting down a good wet line. We coordinate with brother Ben, as he is helping oversee the attack. Resources are arriving; I see the tide turning, and a deep emotion of pride and gratitude overwhelms me. Our preparedness, our hours of training, our practice is winning the battle. I have kept my head and we are fighting the fire. The Cal Fire chopper starts dropping bucket loads and we are gleefully soaked by falling water.
The fire came right to us. But for grace and luck, our farm, our livelihood, our lives would have burned. I feel all the feels, but we are OK and stronger for the effort. I am deeply grateful to Cal Fire for arriving with the cavalry to save the day as my strength and energy faded with the pounding adrenaline, smoke inhalation and heat. We couldn’t have done it alone, but we also wouldn’t still be standing had we been unprepared to fight. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!