In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Michael and Katie Mastagni were saddling up for another long day of tracking down their cattle over landscape scorched by the Bootleg Fire.
As the blaze approached, most ranchers with grazing allotments on the Fremont-Winema National Forest — including the Mastagnis of Five Mile Ranch — decided to release their livestock from their pastures and pens, with the hope that they could find safety from the inferno.
Many animals did survive, many others were not so lucky.
“We’ve been riding our tails off looking for them, there’s a lot of ground to cover out there,” said Katie. “Unfortunately we keep finding casualties.”
Considering the sweeping natural beauty of the ranch — with green mountains in the distance and the blue skies overhead — it was hard to believe what the Mastagnis had been through only days prior.
So far, the Mastagnis have tracked down and recovered 95 of their animals, some relatively unscathed and some with serious injuries. They have 15 confirmed casualties. An additional 45 cows and 81 calves are still missing, but Michael is confident his neighbors have some of them.
“Some cows came home without calves and some calves came home without mother cows,” Michael said.
Ranchers and landowners in the area have been euthanizing injured and dying animals that were burned by the fire. It is not uncommon to hear gunfire while driving through areas where evacuation levels have recently been reduced, allowing residents back onto their property for the first time since the Bootleg burned through. Each shot ends the suffering.
Katie said the couple is also rounding up their neighbors’ cattle and returning them to their owners, a level of cooperation locals agreed to do for one another.
“We had some collected before the fire, some during the fire and after the fire,” Michael said. “We never did evacuate. We’ve been here through the whole ordeal.”
Around half of the recovered animals have burnt feet or burnt eyes, Michael said, and one cow died Thursday morning from apparent smoke inhalation.
Luckily for the Mastagnis, the couple has been rounding up more survivors than anticipated, and all in all, things are getting better by the day. Now that the fire has passed over Five Mile Ranch, the worst is over.
“Things are still chaotic but it feels like Disneyland compared to last week,” Michael said.
Fire or no fire, ‘We’re sticking around’
Janice Roberts-Griffin sat in her white Dodge pickup, a few miles from the National Guard checkpoint on Ivory Pine Road. With a .45 caliber revolver on her hip and a grin on her face, Roberts-Griffin doesn’t take guff from anyone.
Roberts-Griffin said she had been driving around in the woods, searching for, euthanizing and burying injured and dead wildlife, a situation that has taken a toll on her.
Many animals have been killed and many others agonizingly wounded. She’s found both cattle and wildlife burnt to a crisp, Roberts-Griffin said. Along Ivory Pine Road she found a burned fawn, a mountain lion and three heads of cattle that were still on fire.
Kevin Coggins, a local contractor who lives nearby, said when he evacuated he saw about 60 head of cattle heading the wrong way, toward the fire.
“We found smoldering cows,” Coggins said after returning to his property.
He estimates 40 head of cattle have been euthanized in the area, too badly burned to survive.
Roberts-Griffin lives on the property with her husband Scott Griffin.
Griffin said as the blaze approached and they were ordered to evacuate, trees swayed violently and hot embers rained down from the sky.
They let their rabbits, turkeys and chickens out two days prior, thinking it was their only chance at survival. The couple waited as long as they could, and then suddenly it was time to go.
They hopped in the truck and evacuated at around 2 p.m., but there was no sun in sight. They turned on their headlights to illuminate the dark smoke that surrounded them as they drove down the rugged, narrow backroads toward safety.
On the way down to Bly they saw two bears with singed fur standing in the road — stunned and incapacitated by the smoke and fire, unable to cross the road.
“They had no nerve endings in their feet,” Roberts-Griffin said. “It’s horrendous just to know the pain they went through ... the ones that survived will die of dehydration.”
It’s hard for her to think about how much death and destruction ripped through the forest.
“This is the reason we moved up here — for the trees and the wildlife,” she said. “And now it’s gone.”
Despite losing their cabins and much of their equipment to the Bootleg, Roberts-Griffin and Griffin don’t plan on going anywhere. They plan on rebuilding, and are focused on preparing a shelter to get them through the winter.
Flight home to fight
When the Bootleg Fire started, Michael Mastagni was in Wyoming at a horse sale.
When he heard about the blaze, he called local fire officials to get information. Mastagni said they were unable at that time to fill him in on the threat level, so he decided to come home and take matters into his own hands.
“I got the news of this fire Thursday night and I was probably 12 or 13 hours by truck to get back home ... or three hours by truck from Jackson Hole, Wyoming airport,” he said. “So I elected to go on and get my animals cared for.”
Mastagni boarded a chartered plane in Jackson Hole and flew home, arriving at the Klamath Falls airport at 9 p.m. Friday night.
By that point, conditions had begun to deteriorate.
“I’ve been here 20 years. And I’ve fought eight fires, maybe this one is the ninth ... somewhere in that ballpark,” he said. “But nothing to this magnitude has threatened livestock before.”
Staying up all night alongside fire crews, Mastagni fought against the inferno until 5 a.m. Saturday, catching only an hour of sleep before heading back out to the front lines.
At about 2 p.m. Sunday, he came into the ranch house to get something to eat, but faded out and collapsed on the floor.
Katie Mastagni slid a pillow under her husband’s head and turned off his cell phone. A much needed respite for the long days ahead.
The search goes on
Suzanne Gallagher has been riding on her land near Highway 140 and Sprague River Road for 37 years. Her family has been in the area for much longer than that. Gallagher loves her land, and she loves her cows.
As the Bootleg Fire started creeping towards the Sycan River, just across from her family’s grazing allotment, Gallagher said they started pushing their cattle to the east. She figured the fire crews would eventually get a handle on the fire, so she just kept pushing her cows further away. But the fire kept moving, and fast.
“Then it crossed the Sycan River and it was on our side, and here it comes, it just kept coming,” Gallagher said.
The fire eventually took over Gallagher’s entire allotment, she said. She evacuated and she left her cattle to fend for themselves.
“We had to wait until the fire went through here because it wasn’t safe to be out there,” she said. “Then it became a mission of finding cattle because if they were suffering, you wanted to put them out of their misery. And if they were dead you want to document it and get a number.”
Luckily for Gallagher, she was able to recover most of her animals.
On Thursday, July 22, Gallagher was out on the forest scouting for any fresh cattle tracks. So far, she estimates she has found more than two dozen cows either dead, or so badly injured they had to be euthanized.
She’s found some that have survived, however, such as a bunch of about 18 that included some of her neighbor’s cattle. Some had burn wounds, and the injured cows are kept in a separate field so they can keep an eye on them.
“We are not sure of our numbers because quite frankly some of the cattle that we found were unidentifiable ... we don’t know if they were ours or our neighbor’s,” Gallagher added.
Gallagher said her son-in-law has been shooting burnt and suffering cows when they’ve been out searching.
“Apparently, if their feet are burnt (then) they don’t heal,” Gallagher said. “You can’t bring them home to doctor them, so you have to put them out of their misery.”
The aftermath of the fire is a grim scene, she said.
“It’s just devastating,” Gallagher said. “I know my cows and I love my cows. It’s been quite the ordeal. I feel like I’ve been walking around numb.”
She is thankful for the support of her neighbors, and how the community helped each other out through the crisis.
“All the neighbors came and helped us gather,” she said. “Whatever it took.”
Just a ‘poof’ on Fuego Mountain
With a shovel swung over his shoulder, Scott Griffin walked across a field surrounded by burnt out cars and machinery. He had spent the morning putting out hot spots, and stomping out smoldering stumps.
“We’ve put out numerous fires,” his wife Roberts-Griffin said. “It’s ingrained in us.”
Roberts-Griffin is the daughter of a firefighter, and said she’s seen plenty of them. But nothing like this one.
“It was a poof on Fuego Mountain and then it turned into this,” she said.
The couple lost all three of their cabins, as well as all their “toys and tools,” which consisted of thousands of dollars of machinery and vehicles they had collected over the years.
They, along with neighbor Kevin Coggins, have been clearing roads around their property themselves. Otherwise they would be virtually impassable, littered with burnt out trees and debris.
Coggins said he lost three outbuildings, a motor home and two trailers, but is determined to work through the loss.
“We work for a living, we fight for it ... living out here,” Coggins added.
Hard work continues
The Mastagnis bought their 10,000 acre ranch in 2002. They had 230 cow/calf pairs on the home ranch as well as an additional 60 replacement heifers and 20 bulls.
“We lost a really significant number of acres and timber on the north end of the property and on the east side of the property,” Michael Mastagni said. “I don’t even want to try to guess, but it probably was 2,000 or 3,000 acres. Quite a bit of ground.”
The Mastagnis also lost an historical train trestle and a caboose car they had planned to refurbish.
“I had big plans to remodel the caboose and put some historical information about the railroad,” he said.
The Mastagnis made sure to show their appreciation to fire crews on the ground. Katie made firefighters breakfast one morning as they set out to fight the blaze, Michael provided bison meat for burgers, and their young daughter baked cupcakes.
On Wednesday, July 21, Michael loaded up a canvas bag with bison meat headed for Donna’s Bread Wagon in Bly to feed weary firefighters coming off the line. Donna’s has been the go to spot for fire crews, with lines weaving all the way to the road around dinner time.
“Our next battle is we don’t have the natural resources to support these animals that should have been out in the Forest Service all summer,” Michael Mastagni said.
The lack of hay due to the fire, he said, has caused a spike in prices.
“It’s not even economical to feed cattle,” he said.
The effect is causing ranchers to bring cattle to market, driving prices down.
Despite all the hardships, the silver lining in all of this is the strong community ties and cooperation between the local ranchers and landowners in the wake of tragedy.
Instead of worrying about boundaries, Michael added, they decided to come together.
“We decided that the boundaries were not important, but that the cattle’s lives superseded an arbitrary boundary,” he said.
— Reporter Joe Siess can be reached at (541) 885-4481 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jomsiess