“The flames that neared Tuscarora were part of the Dunphy Complex of fires that scorched roughly 163,00 acres.”
Elko Daily Free Press October 5, 2011
October 6, 2014
It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful fall day than today here in Tuscarora. I just returned from a walk above town, stopping to kick at rusty tin cans and to notice how the shards of blue, brown, and purple bottle glass shine in the morning light. In its glory days of silver mining in the 1870’s, Tuscarora had a population of five thousand people. It takes imagination to conjure the lives and the activity when all you see are a few stick houses; a scattering of trailers; abandoned hopes and dreams in the empty or unfinished buildings. It’s so quiet here. There are fewer than a dozen full-time residents. It’s the place I call home.
We had heavy rains last weekend. On Saturday a flash flood roared down Taylor Canyon, inundated the Taylor Canyon Club, and filled the kitchen, the bar, and the dining room with four inches of mud. Across the road, the water was forceful enough to move two of the cabins about six inches off their foundations. The deluge took everyone by surprise, especially Tom, the owner, who was in the kitchen slicing a prime rib he had just taken off the smoker. As a young cowboy said to me the next day about the violent profusion of water, “That’s not supposed to happen around here.”
That day, Sunday, neighboring ranchers, cowboys, miners, and several of us from Tuscarora showed up with flat-edged shovels, shop vacs, mops and buckets–and a backhoe or two–to help muck out the building, assess the damage to the cabins, and swamp out the mud and debris from the parking area .
Anyway, it was a close call. On Sunday the mud in the bar and restaurant and the damage to the cabins seemed daunting. We wondered whether Taylor Canyon would open again. Moved from the Rio Tinto mine, the Taylor Canyon Club has been standing in its current spot for at least sixty-five years. However, the bar, restaurant, and cabin rentals comprise a marginal commercial enterprise at best. Tom, who has owned the place for the past two decades, is in poor health and he’s not getting any younger.
I heard that Tom is feeling a little more optimistic this week. He’s hiring a cleaning crew to come on Monday and Tuesday. As soon as he gives us the word, the Tuscarora Ladies Club will have a clean-up day to get the kitchen back in working order. Hunting season is in full swing and everyone understands that Tom counts on the business of hunters.
I suppose outsiders would describe the building as a big old shack in the middle of nowhere. That’s true. However, if the Taylor Canyon Club had been washed away, it would have been a significant loss. We’ve come to depend on its being there, whether we stop for a drink, celebrate with family and friends with prime rib dinner on a Saturday night, or just slow down on our way home, checking to see if we recognize any of the trucks parked in front. Also, the humble place represents the rich and complex history of ranching, mining, and hunting in northeastern Nevada. Anyway, it was a close call.
October 3, 2011was another close call. Tuscarora almost burned to the ground. Because today is such a lovely fall day, it’s difficult to remember how unseasonably hot September and October were that year. I do remember the sequence of events. I spent the weekend in Boise with my daughter. After dropping her off at the airport to catch a flight back to California, I headed home.
About thirty miles south of Owyhee, I noticed smoke in the air and tried to place the fire. Maybe it’s in the Tuscarora Mountains. No, it seems more towards Carlin. No, it’s further away. It’s hard for me to judge distances, especially in the basin and range country of northeastern Nevada.
It was after eight when I pulled into my driveway. My neighbor Milt was standing on his porch looking west toward an unnaturally dark part of the sky. “Where’s the fire?” I called.
“In the Midas area. Thursday night there was dry lightning everywhere,” he said as he turned back into his double-wide trailer.
When I woke up on Monday morning, I felt like hell. My lower back was killing me. I got up periodically to take a couple of Advil and then crawled back to bed. I didn’t bother to open the bedroom curtains. About one o’clock my phone rang. Julie, our postmistress, said, “Nancy, you might want to pack some things. There is some speculation we might be asked to evacuate.” That snapped me to attention.
From this point on, the tempo changed. I forgot about my aching back. After throwing on some clothes, I went outside to see what was going on. A dark shadow of smoke filled the sky to the west, somewhere beyond…What? Where? I couldn’t say. Not long after Julie called, my neighbors showed up. Retired firefighters, Sidne did dispatch in Nevada and Alaska and Mike was a smoke jumper all over the West. We grabbed binoculars and walked to a nearby ridge to see if we could get a better look at what had coalesced into a gigantic black smokestack in the sky.
Mike was trying to judge our distance from the fire, when Sidne said, “Look! a borate bomber.” She named the model. “They’re fast. They can be here from Battle Mountain in twelve minutes,” she said as we watched the borate bomber fly overhead. When we turned to go home, we saw the town was swarming with firefighters. Trucks hauling equipment were streaming up the road to Tuscarora.
Shortly after I returned to my house, an official in yellow firefighting gear knocked on my door and politely told me we weren’t officially being requested to evacuate, but we were being encouraged to leave. As he spoke, two young firefighters began hosing the deck and the woodpile and clearing brush on the northeast corner of my property. “The fire is at the Rhoads ranch,” one of them told me. I realized that in unchecked wildfire time, seven miles was way too close.
Less than an hour after that preliminary warning, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on my door and said, “Everyone is being asked to leave.” His gruff tone told me “asked” meant “now.” I gathered my laptop, camera, a little bit of jewelry, and an overnight bag, as if I were spending a couple of nights at the Marriott in Elko, which is exactly what happened.
After putting my bags in the car. I told the two young guys dragging hoses around the house, “The door’s unlocked. ..”
“That’s the right thing to do,” one of them said. “If they needed to get in, they’d break it down.”
“I put out coffee and mugs in the shop, ” I continued, as if they were guests. “And there’s a bathroom out there.” As an afterthought I said, “If it looks like I’m going to lose my little house, there’s a bottle of Jim Beam under the kitchen sink.” They smiled. I started my car and headed down the road, away from the fire. As soon as I was in cell phone range, I left a message for my husband in California. “I’m headed to Elko. Tuscarora has been evacuated.”
I registered at the Marriott in Elko about eight o’clock. There was nothing I could do. I fixed myself a couple of drinks–I left the Beam for the firefighters but took the Makers Mark–watched tv and went to sleep, once again aware of my aching back. It didn’t seem real. Isn’t that what they always say?
Two days later I went back to Tuscarora, saw black hillsides, burned sagebrush, and the town intact. Because Mike and our friend Ron are two thirds of the Tuscarora Volunteer Fire Department, they were permitted to stay. Hearing Mike and Ron talk about about that first night reinforced how close the town came to being destroyed. They told me crews were all over town cutting brush, hosing down the sides of houses, dozing a firebreak and lighting backfires that burned to the top of Mt. Blitzen.
Once home, my first phone call was to my friend who ranches on the flat land halfway between Taylor Canyon and Tuscarora. I was praising the manpower, equipment, and efficiency—including the Army helicopters taking water from the Glory Hole and putting out fires in the canyons all day Tuesday. “It was one helluva close call,” I said to my friend.
“They should’ve let the town burn!” she interrupted. She launched into a criticism of Nevada Forestry and the BLM for letting the fire get so out of control and destroy so much rangeland and wildlife habitat. She told me about the chaos at our friend’s ranch, how ranchers and cowhands from the north end of the valley showed up, unloading their horse trailers, riding to open gates and move cattle out of danger. “The fire,” she said, “was spitting distance from the house.” That turned out to have been an exaggeration, but not by much. She told me about the loss of nine prized horses, she didn’t know how many cows, but most of all, it was the irreparable loss of grazing land.
I let her vent her anger and frustration. She talked about how these rangeland holocausts never used to happen until they started to restrict the grazing; about how the BLM and environmental groups will use rangeland fires to justify reduction of grazing allotments and to reinforce endangered species claims. I knew what she was saying, There was the insinuation that in saving Tuscarora, the interests of the ranchers were sacrificed. It wasn’t true. Later she apologized more than once for her outburst.
What is true is that the people who live here, stay here, can withstand the formidable natural forces. As a matter of fact, pride themselves on their endurance and their ability to pull together when needed. However, ranchers here and throughout the West see a greater threat in human forces at work: in urban sensibilities that mythologize a noble, untamed wilderness; federal government agencies with obstructive and unnecessary regulations; and certain environmental groups antagonistic toward the use of public land for grazing cattle and, even more basic, to beef as a food source.
Some predict that within thirty years range cattle will be gone from the Great Basin. Open range cattle ranching will be a memory. It’s hard to say. Right now, the price of cattle is good; it was a wet spring and summer and the range has made a remarkable comeback. This year, there are fifteen children in the Independence Valley school, located a mile or so up the road from the Taylor Canyon Club. Our local cowboys made a good showing at the Elko County Fair. So far, so good. The value of a way of life becomes instantly apparent after such a close call.