Cattle ranchers are recovering from the destruction of thousands of acres of grazing land and miles of wooden fencing as a result of the Waverly Fire, which was deemed 100 percent contained at 11,789 acres as of July 2.
The fire, which initially threatened 50 homes, started June 29 east of Linden in San Joaquin County and passed through parts of Stanislaus County before reaching Calaveras, where the majority of the blaze took place, according to Emily Kilgore, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
There were no lives lost, no injuries reported and no cattle killed in the fire. Aside from fencing and a few pieces of old farming equipment, the only structure lost was a vacant mobile home on a property off of Rock Creek Road.
A report detailing the cause of the fire was anticipated to be completed sometime this week, Kilgore said. Once the report is complete, individuals who suffered losses or damage may request a copy of the report for insurance claim purposes by contacting Melinda Shoff at 754-2744.
Though the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Cal Fire officials attribute the rapid spread of the flames – approximately 1,000 acres per hour – to critical weather conditions.
“The probability of ignition was 100 percent, meaning that every spark will cause a fire,” said Kilgore. “This is a calculation that uses temperature, relative humidity and fuel moisture. On June 29th, the temperature was 99 degrees, relative humidity was 16 percent and the fuel moisture was 2 percent. In addition, the northwest winds with gusts up to 15 mph were helping the fire to spread on semi-flat ground.”
A community of firefighters
Cal Fire and local crews responded to the scene to meet several ranchers and residents off of Milton Road who were already battling the fast-moving fire as it roared southeast parallel with Rock Creek Road toward Highway 4.
“Quite a few people showed up all over out in that smoke,” reports Brandon Perry, a rancher who lost 75 percent of his feed to the fire. “There was an entire force of people just shifting 600 to 800 head of cows around different ranches while the rest of us were trying to put the fire out. At one point, two guys that happened to be driving down Milton Road jumped out of their cars and helped fight that fire like it was their property burning.”
Perry made a point to personally thank “Ozzy and Derrick” for their services that day, though he was unable to get their last names.
Sheri Overmeyer, a cattle rancher off of Milton Road, lost more than 900 acres to the blaze.
“We were driving down from the mountains when we saw the smoke, and we were making calls frantically,” Overmeyer said. “It made me sick when I knew where it was headed; you worry about your home and livestock. We managed to keep the cattle out of the way of the fire, but they were highly stressed. We were opening gates to give them some leeway to get away from the flames until we were able to find a patch of feed in the neighbor’s field.”
Overmeyer eventually hauled her livestock to a piece of property nearer to Valley Springs, where they joined another herd.
Roy Orlando, a rancher off of Rock Creek Road who lost 200 acres and nearly his house to the blaze, expressed gratitude to all of his neighbors who came out to help protect his home.
“We probably had 20 phone calls in 10 minutes,” Orlando said. “There were strong winds carrying the fire our way in Rock Creek, and at one point, our entire property was surrounded by flames. The entire hill was covered in smoke. We had hoses, sprinkler systems going and neighbors on skid loaders making firebreaks. We were so close to losing our home. The trees were scorched but never fully spread to any structures. If they would have ignited, it would’ve set a barn and some houses on fire.”
Orlando’s neighbor, Anita Slicton, added, “It’s a miracle someone wasn’t killed. There was a wall of flames going across Milton Road, and it was moving fast.”
Slicton said the fire probably covered most of its total acreage within six hours.
“It was devastating,” she said. “Looking out the window, what used to be beautiful golden hills is now just black.”
The Orlandos have spent the week since the fire cleaning up their house to clear out the smell of smoke.
Everyone who was contacted emphasized that in addition to the 714 highly trained staff, support personnel and firefighters deployed by Cal Fire and other agencies over the duration of the fire, the air tankers made the biggest difference in extinguishing the blaze.
Overmeyer emphasized the setback the fire has imposed upon her operations.
“It’s a matter of extra trucking and extra feeding,” she said. “Next winter, we’ll have to feed more hay to hold the cattle. We’re hoping we’ll be able to put a few back in the field next year, but we won’t be able to have as many out there as this year. A friend of ours offered to take 30 or 40 for winter if the space is available, but it’s highly likely that he won’t have any room. Everyone’s got their own cattle to protect.”
Overmeyer and the other ranchers impacted by the Waverly Fire hope for heavy rains to restore the grasslands for the next season.
For those in desperate need of feed, Tuolumne County resident Ron Hamilton is offering weekly hay donations for farmers whose grazing land was destroyed by the fire. Hamilton has already distributed 42 bales as of this week, and plans on making deliveries every Monday to reach his goal of 100 truckloads in five weeks.
Hamilton is no stranger to giving back during fire season. In 2014, he and his family spent 10 days serving dinners to thousands of Rim Fire firefighters from their home.
“This community has blessed me, and this is my way of blessing back,” Hamilton said.
Those interested in making donation for farmers impacted by the Waverly Fire can visit or call Hurst Ranch at 984-3016 or Hamilton at 588-3848.
In addition to grazing land, Perry is especially concerned with the destruction of the wooden fencing that lined the properties of several different ranches.
“Most of the wood posts on these fences burned hot enough to damage the wire. It’ll take weeks of cleaning up before we can even start rebuilding.”
Farmers may apply for loans from the Farm Services Agency, 7585 S. Longe St., Stockton, to be compensated for damages, according to Calaveras County Agriculture Commissioner Kevin Wright. Farmers can call the FSA office at 337-2124.
Area ranchers are already preparing for the next fire.
Around 75 people affected by the Waverly Fire met July 8 at Wayne McCurley’s ranch off of Milton Road to have dinner, share experiences and discuss preparedness for future fires, Slicton said.
“Cal Fire land crews’ response time and accessibility is an issue out here, so all of us are examining what we could do to be better prepared if a fire breaks out anywhere on the ranch,” Slicton said. “We’re talking about fire guard lines, evacuation kits, and we’re thinking about putting a 300-gallon tank of water connected to a hardline hose on our flatbed truck.”