Wildfire Response: Evacuating with TurkeyTail Farm

Farmers Cheetah and Samantha run TurkeyTail Farm in Yankee Hill, California, a diversified farm with vegetables, mushrooms, flowers, livestock, and other value-added products. During the Camp Fire in Butte County, they were evacuated for 28 days and lost everything but their livestock to severe fire damage – including their home. In this two-part blog series, the farmers share about their recovery process (including returning to live on the land without electricity or water for 6 months!) from after the evacuation order was lifted until today. They particularly focus on the nuance of being evacuated with livestock, tips and tools for reducing fire severity, and how to creatively recover with the help of your community. They share their experience with recovery, evacuation, and fire management planning for small farmers who have been affected by or might be affected by wildfires in California or surrounding areas. This blog is based on a three-part video series TurkeyTail made for our Farmers Build Wildfire Resilience Online Course, which you can watch here.

Wildfire Response: Evacuating Long-Term 

Hi there, this is Samantha Zangrilli and Cheetah Tchudi of Turkey Tail Farm. On November 8, 2018, we lost our home, all of our personal possessions, and our farming equipment to the Camp Fire. 

What struck me (Samantha) on that day was that I was thinking to myself, “Is this going to really come our way? Should I be working as diligently and as hard as I am to get to load up these animals and evacuate them? Is it going to be a waste of my time?” 

What I learned through this process is that it will never be a waste of your time. If there’s an emergency, pack up all your animals, your sentimental belongings, and everything that is important to you and leave. This is your life!  

The Camp Fire was a fire of a different caliber. We woke up in the morning and we saw the smoke plume on the horizon, so we checked the fire maps, and when we saw where it was initially, I wasn’t concerned and thought it was two days away. But the Camp Fire moved at the rate of one football field per second. 

We’ve been evacuated from the property on three different occasions due to wildfire, so we felt like we were fairly comfortable with it and we had a basic plan we follow: We load up the dogs with my parents – they’re the first out the gate. We’ve got a livestock trailer, and we fit as many animals in as possible and then parse out as much food on the ground as we can for our animals. Then we fill up whatever troughs are available because it could well save their lives. We left with the belief that we would be back in two days, which is typical for evacuations – normally they get contained and you’re done. You get to go home, get back to work. 

Instead, they established Martial Law in the wake of the Camp  Fire. We had military police at every street corner in our rural community, and nobody was permitted back for 28 days. It was a very different thing which we weren’t prepared for. So now we want to share some important considerations for you when it comes to evacuating from our own experience, and what we think all farmers should know.

Emergency Hazard Mitigation and Preparing to Rebuild

An important part of our evacuation plan is eliminating any potential hazards for the firefighters. We take any bottles of gas or oxygen, propane, or any fuels and throw them out in the open so that the firefighters don’t have any unpleasant surprises. Anything magnesium-based too. The chainsaws are always the first thing in the car, but also your skill saw for example has magnesium parts that burn really, really hot. The other thing is to load up your ammunition to keep firefighters safe in case it catches fire. 

The other thing we like to think about, and it turned out to be critical in our scenario, is “What are we going to need to rebuild if we do lose our home?” For us, that includes a generator, our best tools, and any kind of materials that you’re going to need right off the bat when you get back to start restoring life to your land to salvaging your home, which was critical for us in recovering.

Where will you go?

Once you’ve confronted the reality of having to evacuate, the next question is “Where do I go?” [Rather than have to answer this during the emergency, it’s better to have a plan.]  For us, we’ve always had a plan with our farmer friends, which is super helpful if you have a lot of livestock because they’ll understand your situation better and be able to support you. We had talked to them before about if we could come to their land and stay with them because we have so many animals and need acreage. They had an extra bedroom, and I was able to put my sheep in her landlord’s orchard, my ducks right in her side yard so everybody was really close and then we didn’t have to do a fairground evacuation, which I would not recommend.  I recommend instead having a set-up like ours with friends in your back pocket and planning for evacuation with them.

We ended up being evacuated for 28 days, and it was so long! I don’t think I’ve ever been away from the farm that long since we’ve been married. So make sure you check in with your host farm regularly because you don’t know for how long you’re going to be evacuated. Which was hard on us, but it’s also hard on your hosts, not knowing how long you’ll be there. So make sure to ask if there’s anything that you can do for them to make it easier on them. It’s a lot for a host house to take on all these animals and a second family or couple. Just make sure you have open communication with them, offer to buy groceries, or even give them rent money or electricity money because you will make a big impact and you want to make sure that those relationships always stay cordial.

Preparing for Being Off-Farm with Livestock and Animals 

Thankfully, our Ag Commissioner was able to issue permits to commercial livestock producers to return home. I (Cheetah) got a permit on day five of the fire event and was able to return home and care for our animals. I went around and caught all the animals that were running loose on the property, started cutting down hazard trees and restoring functionality to the farm, filling water,  bringing feed, and kind of just doing day-to-day survival stuff. Without that Ag Pass, certainly, my animals wouldn’t have survived. So we recommend you petition your Ag Commissioner now and have them be ready for a fire disaster. We also joined the Facebook group “Cowboy 911”  [a worldwide group of people who pledge to offer assistance to others with livestock and pets in emergency situations] for the purpose of animal rescue, but also being able to help fellow neighbors. They did paramount work for us in the wake of the fire. 

Take Action: Establish an Ag Pass program in your community.

Make sure when you leave that you’re taking all the necessary things so that your animals can go back out on pasture. We use electrified nets, batteries, car batteries and speed-right chargers to keep our animals secure. Now I always have those in the livestock trailer that we’d evacuate in so that once we have evacuated safely I don’t have to rely on going somewhere with an enclosed fence for them and get set something temporary up instead. 

Make contacts with the animal nonprofits like the Humane Societies / SPCA if you do have livestock because they’ll be able to provide you with disaster relief in the form of food. Another great piece of advice is that as soon as you do get evacuated, start looking into Facebook groups. There are usually all sorts of donation sites [for wildfire refugees]. For instance, they had things like feed for animals like alfalfa and hay and chicken food, or pet food so you don’t have to spend money on feeding your dogs.

And I think our last bit of advice with livestock is if you do end up being able to save your animals when you evacuate, we suggest as soon as possible taking those animals to be processed and harvested because it’ll be one less stressor on you. You’ll then have that product to sell and make an income too. 

Generating Income While Evacuated

Speaking of generating income, from our experience we recommend that you take any market products you might have stored. We took a whole freezer full of meat because as soon as the power went out that day, we knew that the $5,000 of meat in there would rot. We filled up the tubs in one vehicle with all of the meat, and we were able to get another vehicle attached to a trailer so we put a freezer on it. I (Samantha) also had a whole bunch of Value Added Products that I had already bottled and labeled so I took as many as I could of those too. Doing this really helped out in the end because once we realized we’d have to stay evacuated for longer-term, we needed money to live off of. So we threw a pop-up sale, and our community really showed up and supported us, and bought our products and helped us out and it was really, really amazing. Because we brought so much product with us, we were also able to participate in the sales that we had already signed up for before the fire happened. So that was really great because we had that income through the winter and the holiday seasons. 

Part 2: The Nuts and Bolts of Resilience

After 28 days of being evacuated, Samantha and Cheetah were able to return to the farm. Once they got there, their recovery really began, having to figure out how to still produce and live on our land without having any basic resources, like electricity and water. Here are some of the considerations that they shared after reflecting on their recovery, as well as some tips on how to bring resilience into your farm while rebuilding…