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‘A once-in-a-lifetime fire’: Gonzaga’s Chandler Smith and family fight to save ranch from Omak inferno

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 9, 2020

Chandler Smith, left, stands with her former Gonzaga teammate Jill Townsend after the pair spent the morning looking for lost cattle near Smith’s family ranch on Tuesday near Brewster, Wash. The morning was exhausting, with the pair finding many fatalities in the wake of the Pearl Hill Fire.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Chandler Smith, left, stands with her former Gonzaga teammate Jill Townsend after the pair spent the morning looking for lost cattle near Smith’s family ranch on Tuesday near Brewster, Wash. The morning was exhausting, with the pair finding many fatalities in the wake of the Pearl Hill Fire. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

When former Gonzaga basketball star Chandler Smith decided to head home to her family’s cattle ranch outside of Brewster to help out her older brother over Labor Day weekend, she had no idea she would be fighting to save the family home from the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill Fires.

The ranch has been in the family for over 110 years. But Chandler’s parents, Dale and Renee Smith, do more than just raise cattle. They have irrigated crops as well, like corn and wheat .

“We’re busy year-round,” Dale said. “We hay a lot, we move cows around a lot. Just everything involved in a ranch. No off-time for us.”

Still, Chandler’s parents decided to spend the weekend 11 hours away in Montana visiting their youngest son, Cade.

It was perfect timing for a weekend away, with the third cutting of wheat almost over.

Then about 10:30 p.m. Sunday night, Chandler got a call from Cody Mestdagh, who lives on the ranch and works for her father. Mestdagh said to get ready in case they needed to fight a fire nearby.

Chandler and her older brother Davey got a few things set up before catching some sleep, in case they didn’t have the chance to rest over the next few days. Early that morning, they went to the top of a nearby ridge to get the full picture.

“It just looked like a volcano,” Chandler said. “We just didn’t really know what we would be dealing with, and all we see is just flames.”

‘It just exploded’

Chandler called her parents, who hopped on the road hoping to get home in time to help.

“He’s just trying to rattle off orders, but he’s not there to see it,” Chandler said. “I can’t imagine what was going through their minds as they’re driving home.”

Dale was adamant about making sure the neighbors knew the fire was coming, so Chandler and Davey went door to door getting people up.

They heard from Cody again saying he was fighting the fire with a few other men who sometimes work on the ranch along with their friends. They were able to keep the fire at bay for a while before the winds changed and “it just exploded,” Chandler said.

That’s when neighbors and friends from Brewster started showing up. The family’s long-time veterinarian was on his hands and knees pulling weeds and brush away from their barn and the house, along with high schoolers from town.

About two hours before the fire hit the Smith property, Dale and Renee made it back to the ranch. Fire was nearly at 12 Tribes Casino as the couple approached their home, and the wind was picking up.

Dale said there were 30-mph winds with 30-foot flames.

“If we had evacuated, we would have lost everything,” Dale said. “I mean, it was blowing me over almost.”

Hay from cutting earlier in the season was bailed and staged throughout the ranch, and it turned out to be prime fuel for the fire.

Dale said he knew the ranch was dry with about an inch of rain since February. In fact, they hadn’t been driving their 4-wheeler out into the pastures for fear of sparking a fire, instead opting to work by horse.

“We’ve been scared because it’s so abnormally dry,” Dale said. “We knew we were in a powder keg here.”

As the high winds continued, Renee watched the fire loop around, seemingly trapping her family as they still fought to save the house.

“We could just see it moving so fast,” Renee said.

Ranch life ‘an important deal’ for the family

The Smiths have been raising cattle on the ranch since Chandler’s great-great-great grandmother Minnie homesteaded it.

The family’s rule has always been that kids have to get a job away from the ranch for 5 years to decide whether they want to stay. Dale was a high school basketball star in Brewster who won 82 straight games and three state tournaments before heading to Alabama for a year to play in college. He then transferred to Central Washington University to continue playing. He became a history and P.E. teacher at his alma mater in Brewster. He was even head coach of the basketball team.

Then in 1989 his father died in an auger accident on the ranch.

“That was the last day I taught,” Dale said. “Been here ever since.”

Tragedy came in pairs for the family. A year later, Dale’s twin brother, a rising rodeo star, was killed when his plane crashed into Mount Rainier.

Dale decided it was “an important deal” to keep the family ranch going.

The ranch operates with less than 10 people normally, with long days full of hard work.

“That’s the only way you can make it in agriculture,” Dale said.

During calving season, they take 2-hour shifts to make sure all the animals are OK. Dale knows all about his herd, like which animals have strong calves and which ones might need a bit more attention, Chandler said.

“There’s a lot of the middle-of-the-herders you don’t know, but there all the good ones you know,” Dale said.

With the price of supplies going up and the return for their meat staying the same, Dale said it’s hard to keep family farms like his going.

Dale said he admires families like Ritzville’s Curtises, who recently created a ranch-to-table boxed-beef business.

With more meat processing and packaging operations owned by foreign companies or large corporations, Dale said it’s more important than ever to know where your food comes from.

For Renee, marrying into a ranch family opened her eyes about the realities of the food-supply chain.

“It’s a whole new way of life if you’re not used to it,” Renee said. “It makes you really appreciate where food comes from.”

While they saved their structures, the Smiths lost 90% of their hay, all of their pasture land, three horses and an unknown number of cattle.

“We couldn’t save everything, but we had to pick and choose,” Dale said. “It’s devastating.”

Many of the wood fences on the property were built by Dale’s great-grandfather, making rebuilding a long process. Dale estimated it would be a few weeks before they knew the extent of the damage.

“We have hundreds of heads of cattle that we won’t see for a week,” Dale said.

On Wednesday morning at dawn, Chandler got on her horse to ride the property and look for cows with her friend and former teammate Jill Townsend, who lives on a neighboring ranch.

“You just feel bad for the animals,” Chandler said.

Townsend said her family was able to save all their cattle except one. They had already heard of four hit by cars overnight as they wandered onto the road.

“Animals are coming out of the woodwork,” Chandler said. “It’s like an atomic bomb went off.”

‘You do something good for somebody, you get repaid’

Despite their significant losses, Dale considers his family lucky.

“We just feel bad for everybody that lost their houses,” Dale said. “It’s a bad deal.”

It may take the farm a few years to get back to normal operations. But Dale is optimistic they’ll recover.

“We’re going to give it our best shot,” Dale said. “I’m going to say, yes.”

And with the help of friends and neighbors, the Smiths were able to save their homes and century-old barn.

“These buildings wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for our neighbors and friends,” Dale said. “This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime fire, to go from Omak to Ephrata.”

When it comes to ranching, Dale said the community aspect is stronger than ever.

“They help support each other. I mean, agriculture is a pretty tight community,” Dale said. “I mean, it’s just a huge support network.”

While this is the largest fire ever at their ranch, the Carlton Complex fire hit the area hard 5 years ago. The Smiths went out of their way to help out their neighbors, who returned the favor this weekend.

“It comes back every time,” Dale said. “You do something good for somebody, you get repaid.”

On Wednesday, ranchers from Tonasket picked up temporary corrals to help the Smiths contain their cattle. As they dropped them off, they got word a fire had started up in their area, and Dale offered to send a water tank with them before the pair drove back.

The amount of help and support in the community caused Renee to get emotional.

“When we saw all these people here to help … you get so emotional you just tear up,” she said. “You take every little tiny thing, and that’s the bright spot.”

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