It seems a little ironic that I am writing my 100th column on my laptop in a friend’s “guest suite” as water-bearing helicopters fly overhead. We are on level 2 here, so may have to leave again with our horses in tow. As I write, the Cedar Creek Fire is a living, fire-breathing monster that continues to rampage down our valley without respect for humans, wildlife or property. But for a smooth working machine of fire fighters collaborating on strategy and assignment distribution, most likely many would be looking at a tremendous loss. Insurance companies with a “dog in the fight” are also proactively striving to prevent loss of property.
We’ve learned new terms like heel and head of the fire, values at risk, containment and dozer lines, and tied-up and mopped-up. We use the words as if they’ve been in our daily vocabulary for a while.
It was one short week ago from this day, Sunday July 25, that we were sitting on our back deck watching the helicopters with their Bambi buckets going back and forth overhead. One pilot was flying so low that we could see him with his arm out the window looking down at us. A salute to him solicited a “honk” from the aircraft in response.
A “whoop, whoop” on Monday, July 26, alerted us to the presence of a state trooper in our driveway. “Time to leave?” we queried. “Yup!” It was fortuitous that we had thought we were on level 2 (we were actually on level 1) for a few days, so all the “Ps” were packed and ready with the horses already evacuated (another story that they had to be evacuated again when the Cub Creek Fire erupted). We gave a last, longing look at our house and barn, ever hopeful that it would be there when we returned.
We did not know then that our savior would be “The Little Ditch That Could.” Early Winters Ditch has been flowing from Early Winters Creek down-valley since the early 1900s. It has found itself amidst water rights/water claims/water usage controversy ever since. Stakeholders include the Yakama Nation, the cherished salmon, Department of Ecology, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Fish and Wildlife, ranchers, livestock owners, gardeners, and those who enjoy the cool, clear water running through their property.
There have been times — even up until today — when the threat of “closing the ditch” has been real. Then along came the Cedar Creek Fire breathing down our necks. As soon as the fire started, fire crews swarmed into the neighborhoods from the origin of the ditch west of the Wilson Ranch properties down the Mazama corridor to protect values at risk.
Before the fire crossed Cedar Creek and crested Sandy Butte, a huge bulldozer was unloaded on our lane. In a short time, the tree-eating machine had bulldozed its way along the ditch bank, traversing it a time or two. We were told it was creating a line of defense, an access road, and access to the precious enemy of fire — water. The manmade lake at Freestone Inn, fed by Early Winters Ditch, became a go-to spot for the helicopters to extract water. Suffice it to say, the ditch was invaluable for fire protection.
As the fire inched ever closer, teams from multiple agencies laid fire hoses along the dozer line and installed numerous pumps operated by generators in the ditch. As back-burning took place to meet the fire creeping down the hill, the ditch waters directed by fire fighters were ready to douse hot spots and hose down properties. Our Little Ditch That Could teamed with the hard work of fire fighters to assure that we would have homes to go to after the fire roared its way past.
All of us on the south side of Highway 20 who live by Early Winters Ditch are ever thankful for this precious water and the diligence of firefighters. We hope that the ditch will be saved for its value in fire protection in the future.