Surviving a wildfire: Thankful, Grateful, Blessed

After wildfires nearly claim their ranch, an Oregon family focuses not on what they have lost but on all that they still have.

approaching wildfire
Donna Kamstra captured this image of the approaching fires the night of September 7, 2020.

A sturdy slab of wood emblazoned with the words “Promise Ranch on the River” welcomes visitors to a piece of property that Tony and Donna Kamstra call paradise. 

Former high school sweethearts, the Kamstras live in the rural town of Gates, Oregon. Their five-acre spread is home to tall fir trees, green pastures, a small pond and the steady babble of the mighty Santiam River. Sharing the property is Donna’s Quarter Horse Sadie (registered name: Jus A Swinging Star).

“It’s an incredible, incredible place,” says Donna. She and Tony have grown to love Promise Ranch on the River in the three-and-a-half years they have lived there, but their appreciation took on another dimension last fall when they nearly lost it all.

A holiday weekend

The ordeal started Labor Day 2020. The Kamstras had spent most of the holiday installing a new fence on their ranch. But as they worked, thick smoke surrounded them from a wildfire burning in the Willamette National Forest. Smoke from the wildfire had been drifting over their property periodically since August.

By Labor Day evening, the smoke was getting so thick that Donna brought Sadie in from her pasture, figuring the mare would be safer in her stall. Out of caution, the Kamstras made sure their trailer was hitched to their truck. Then, at about 8 p.m., they decided to head up to their house.

Before they got there, Donna noticed flashes of bright light appearing on the hill near their property. “We thought, ‘Lightning? Why would we be having lightning?’” she recalls. Meanwhile a strong wind had come up and they were surrounded by an eerie orange haze. 

The Kamstras hurried up to their house, where they discovered that the power was out. Donna waited inside while Tony went out to start their generator. Before long, though, he rushed back inside, calling for Donna: The mountain next to their property was on fire. “It was just suddenly there and raging,” Tony says. 

Extreme fire activity

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) described the situation in a news release the next day, noting, “Extreme fire activity, fueled by a rare fire weather event with low humidity and strong east winds, occurred on several fires located within the Willamette National Forest last night.” The USFS also reported that several new fires had started along Highway 22 on the evening of September 7. 

Fierce winds were dispersing the fires, enabling flames to jump from tree to tree in an ugly dance. There was no time to waste. Donna quickly sent an email to her neighbors that read, “FIRE. Our mountain is on fire.” Then her thoughts turned to Sadie. 

She ran to the barn, shaking as she approached the tack room to locate Sadie’s halter, and then headed to the mare’s stall. Sadie seemed to sense what was needed. She calmly walked over and rested her head on Donna’s chest. “She just literally put her nose in the halter,” says Donna, who quickly led the mare out of the barn.

By now the fire was audible, roaring and crackling as Donna led Sadie to the trailer. But the mare took it all in stride, loading readily and then calmly munching her hay once inside. The Kamstras locked the house and got ready to go.

Outrunning a wildfire

It was close to 9:30 p.m. when the Kamstras pulled out of their driveway, not knowing what they would find when they returned. Tony drove their motorhome, and Donna followed in their truck, pulling the trailer. Their destination was Aumsville, a city close to 25 miles away where they planned to stay with family. As the inferno engulfed the forest behind them, they made their way down Highway 22.

But a drive that normally took 30 minutes instead st­retched on much longer—ultimately lasting a tense hour and a half. “We had to pull over constantly for the fire trucks,” explains Tony. “There was a solid line of emergency vehicles on the way up to fight the fires.”

Sound of sirens

With the sound of sirens flooding her ears, Donna followed closely behind her husband, keeping her eyes glued to the faint glow of the motorhome’s taillights. The acrid smoke dimmed visibility and overwhelmed her senses. As she drove, she kept repeating a prayer, “Lord, please stop the wind. Please protect the firefighters and give them wisdom. And please protect our homes.”

When the Kamstrases returned to their property in Gates, Oregon after evacuating, they found that the lawn and pasture were still green, but the wildfires had transformed the rest of the landscape. These two photos, taken from a window in the Kamstras’ home at Promise Ranch on the River, illustrate the toll that the wildfires took on local flora and fauna. 

Finally, they arrived in Aumsville. Sadie was put up in the family’s barn and everyone settled in for the night. But by the next morning, thick smoke had reached Aumsville and a level-2 evacuation notice had been issued for the city. In a September 8 news release, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management defines a level-2 evacuation as, “Be Set—Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. There is significant danger to your area. Be prepared to voluntarily relocate to a Temporary Evacuation Point (TEP) as set up by the Red Cross, or move to family/friends outside of the affected area.”

Having seen firsthand how quickly the wildfires could travel, the Kamstras decided to move to an evacuation center at the nearby Linn County Fairgrounds. It was a place that Donna knew well; she and Sadie had frequently taken part in team penning competitions there.

At the fairgrounds, a stall was provided for Sadie, and there was a space where the Kamstras could set up their motorhome. “Everything that you could possibly imagine that you would need, they had there for you.” Donna says of the evacuation center.

A home away from home

For the first several days of their stay, the Kamstras were surrounded by family. As time passed, however, many relatives returned to their homes, and eventually Tony was called back to work. That meant that during the day, Donna and Sadie were on their own. “We spent so much time together,” Donna says of their 10-day stay at the fairgrounds. “We would just walk around.” Almost everything in their life right now was upside down but caring for Sadie was normal.

Both horse and rider knew the fairgrounds well. The clang of the arena gate. The rumble of the loudspeaker. The smell of livestock. It was in this arena that they spent many of their evenings racing the clock, running down cows in team penning events.

When team penning, Sadie not only takes care of her job, but she also watches out for her partner in the saddle. “Sadie will literally lift her shoulder under me when she turns on that cow and I start to go off,” Donna says. That movement has kept Donna in the saddle and out of the dirt several times. “That’s my partner. That’s my Sadie.”

On one of their strolls, Donna walked Sadie into the arena to give her an opportunity to roll or stretch her legs, but Sadie just stared back at her. To encourage Sadie to roll, Donna pawed the ground with her foot, sending plumes of arena dust into the air. Sadie just stood by her side. The mare, it seemed, still viewed the arena as a place to work, not relax.

Meeting new friends

Each day at the fairgrounds brought new people, new animals and new sights. Many were creatures Sadie had never seen before, such as a llama. Donna found that the dynamics of working through these encounters strengthened her bond with her mare. After all, when Donna is in the saddle, she trusts Sadie to take care of her as they do their job. Now on the ground, Sadie trusted Donna to take care of her when they met new things.

Donna started taking photos of Sadie’s expressions when she encountered something new and shared them on social media. Before long, a growing audience was following Donna and Sadie’s journey. This social media project provided “purposeful distraction” that helped her keep hope during a difficult time, Donna says. “It took you out of this world and put you into a world of Sadie. It made it bearable. I had my Sadie and she had me and we made it through.” 

Finally, on September 18, the last day of their stay at the fairgrounds, Donna shared a photo of Sadie eagerly looking at their horse trailer. “I see it, Mom… I see it!” the caption read. 

They were going home.

A new journey

In one sense, the Kamstras were fortunate: During their 11 days away they had been able to check on their property and use water from their pond to douse and protect their house and barn from the fires.

trailer, shed and other structures and equipment claimed by wildfire
When they returned to their ranch, the Kamstras discovered that the wildfires had claimed their spare horse trailer, farm truck, garage, tractor and boat. 

Tony remembers seeing their home still standing when they drove up the driveway. “No words for that,” he says. The Kamstras found that the lawn and pasture were still green, but the fire had transformed the rest of Promise Ranch. The fire had reduced their spare horse trailer, camper, dually farm truck, stand-alone garage, tractor and boat to ashes and tangles of melted metal. The entry sign, though it had fallen to the ground, was still intact.

Their fruit trees were burned and the rosebushes were black. The great fir trees surrounding the house and barn were charred. 

“You don’t quite believe it, but you’re looking at it,” Donna says, and she emphasizes that she is grateful for all that remains. “I have been so richly blessed with my husband and my family and my horse life and where we live,” she says.

Sadie seemed to share that feeling of relief. Once unloaded from the trailer, she was turned out in her pasture, an emerald carpet amidst the surrounding coal-black trees. In those first moments of freedom in her pasture, Sadie did the very thing she’d refused to do the entire time they were at the fairgrounds—she rolled. 

“She just rolled, and rolled, and rolled, for a good six minutes,” Donna says with a chuckle. “I just laughed and laughed.”

Several days later the rains moved in and cleansed the forest air. The entry sign was retrieved from the driveway and propped up against the fence with the backside visible. It reads, “Thankful, Grateful, Blessed.”

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