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In A Remote Part Of Washington, A Scramble To Save Cattle From Flames

Aug 28, 2015
Originally published on September 1, 2015 11:51 am

More than 1,000 square miles of wildfires are burning in Washington state. In the remote Okanogan Valley in the north-central part of the state, many cattle ranchers are scrambling to save their herds.

Ranchers in Omak, Wash., have lost animals, barns, pasture and winter haystacks to the wildfires. But some people still have their cattle, and at the town's Ag Tech Feed Store, owners Monte and Laurie Andrews are trying to help keep those ranchers in business.

"We're trying to make sure that these cattle are fed, that these ranch families don't lose their livelihood — that we can keep them going," says Monte Andrews.

The Andrews' feed store is a hub for the community. Ranchers are using it as stopgap for broken communications. Power, phone lines and cell phone towers have burned down. The Andrews are helping people coordinate cattle evacuations.

Sometimes, it's the quieter moments that let the stress sink in. Outside the feed store, Hugh Tower tends to his evacuated horse and mule. He built his own log cabin up in the Tunk Valley. Fire rings his property now, but there are still two older horses he couldn't get in a trailer to haul out.

"What I can't do is just sit still," Tower says. "If I do that, I start to come apart," he says, emotion straining his voice.

"I stay busy here," he says. He tends to his animals outside the feed store and helps out inside. "There's a lot to do here, you know — hay coming, in hay going out all the time."

Across town at the Stockyard Café, ranchers are gathering every morning to trade information and guzzle coffee. Among them is Craig Vejraska. We jump in his new pickup. He has to go check on his cattle in some high mountain meadows. He's nearly 70 years old, and he speeds at 70 mph up winding country roads — no seat belt. His eyes narrow to the road.

"I've had a better couple of weeks, I can tell you that," he tells me.

We drive for nearly 15 miles over rugged dirt roads and flaming trees. "There ain't no communications here, there ain't no cell phone service, there's nothing. You're on your own," Vejraska says.

In this scorched landscape of blackened trees, ash and thick smoke, finding black Angus cows is a problem. Vejraska has opened or cut all the fences on his property so cattle can escape. He would drive them to safety, but the fire is so widespread that he has few places to put them. He would have his four sons round them up, but that's too dangerous.

"They make cows every day," he says. "I'm pretty partial to those four boys, and I'll be ***damned if I'm going to give 'em up for a fire. You know, cows will have to burn."

In a high meadow, he calls the cattle and opens up a sack of feed, pouring it on the ground. The animals drift in close, out of the smoke. He's bred these cattle lines for years. They're made for this harsh mountain ground.

This is a small band — just a few dozen cows out of his herd of 1,800. He smiles. At least these are still here.

"We're still in business," he says.


Anna King reports for the Northwest News Network, a public radio consortium.

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More than a thousand square miles of wildfires are burning in Washington state. In the remote Okanogan Valley in the north-central part of the state, many cattle ranchers are scrambling to save their herds. From the Northwest News Network, Anna King reports.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: The Ag Tech Feed Store in Omak, Wash., sells everything from calf rope halters to salt licks to hay. Monte and Laurie Andrews own the place. Ranchers here have lost animals, barns, pasture and winter hay stacks. But Monte says some people here still have their cattle.

MONTE ANDREWS: So we're trying to make sure that these cattle are fed, that these ranch families don't lose their livelihood, that we can keep them going.

DAKOTA: Ag Tech. This is Dakota (ph) speaking.

KING: This feed store is a hub. Ranchers are using it as a stopgap for broken communications. Power, phone lines and cell phone towers have burned down. Laurie Andrews is helping people coordinate cattle evacuations.

LAURIE ANDREWS: Nineteen cows - where are you hauling them? OK, let me talk to Monte and see if we can't put - are you trying to do that tomorrow or tonight?

KING: Sometimes it's the quieter moments that let the fire's stress sink in. Outside the feed store, Hugh Tower tends to his evacuated horse and mule. Tower built his own log cabin up in the Tunk Valley. Fire rings his property now.

HUGH TOWER: So we'll just hope.

KING: There are still two older horses he couldn't get in a trailer to haul out.

TOWER: What I can't do is just sit still. If I do that, I'll start to come apart. I stay busy here, you know? There's a lot to do here - hay coming in and hay going out all the time.

KING: Across town at the Stockyard Cafe...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We've been there for 14 days.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's right.

KING: Ranchers are gathering here every morning to trade information and down coffee. Among them is Craig Vejraska. We jump in his new pickup. He has to go check on his cattle in some high mountain meadows. He's nearly 70 years old, and he speeds at 70 miles an hour up winding country roads, no seatbelt, his eyes narrow to the road.

CRAIG VEJRASKA: I've had better couple weeks. I can tell you that.

KING: Nearly 15 miles of rugged dirt roads and flaming trees.

VEJRASKA: There ain't no communications here, and there ain't no cell phone service. There's nothing. You're on your own.

KING: Finding black Angus cows in this scorched landscape of blackened trees, ash and thick smoke is a problem. He's opened or cut all the fences so cattle can escape. He would drive them to safety, but the fire is so widespread, he has few places to put them. He'd have his four sons round them up, but that's too dangerous.

VEJRASKA: And like I tell the boys, you know, they make cows every day, you know? I'm pretty partial to those four boys, and I'll be [expletive] if I'm going to give them up for a fire. You know, the cows will have to burn.

(Calling cattle).

KING: In a high meadow, he calls the cattle. They drift in close out of the smoke. He's bred these cattle lines for years. They're made for this harsh mountain ground. This is a small band out of his herd of 1,800.

VEJRASKA: We're still in business.

KING: Just a few dozen cows. He smiles. At least these are still here. For NPR News, I'm Anna King near Omak, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.