The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is on Fire

img_20161102_144452712Fires on farms are catastrophic events. When the farm in question is your homestead, it has the potential to be catastrophic, since both work and home are in danger of being reduced to ash and charred bits of metal.

“Yah bahn’s on fiyha,” my neighbor’s New England accent emanated from the cell phone, muffled by wind and road noise on both ends of the call. I needed him to repeat what he said, while the meaning sank in.

There are some pieces of news that catch you flat-footed; a parent’s death, being laid off from a job, a positive pregnancy test, a Cunha graduating high school. The possibility was always understood, but never really expected.

Grandma fondly recalled the eighth grade as, “My senior year.”

Having grown up in California, I’m well acquainted with wildfires. However, contrary to the widespread rumor, none of them had anything to do with turkey frying mishaps.

img_20161102_144138867_hdrThe upshot of having a significant portion of your farm burnt is you get to meet all your neighbors. People I’ve only seen in passing, and several I didn’t know existed, came from all points of the compass to gawk and shake their heads. I briefly considered charging admission.

The embers smoldered for several days, giving off an ethereal show at night that is likely the closest I will ever get to seeing the Northern Lights in person.

Tallying up the damage was sobering. Half of the hay field was burned, along with burning the undergrowth and saplings in virtually all of the white oak stand at the back of the property. A bunch of fence was destroyed, both by the fire and the firefighting efforts. What really hurt was the loss of my hay barn packed with most of this year’s hay crop.

As it turns out, “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Hay is both.

img_20161102_143910623_hdrI pride myself on being a gallows humorist, but make no mistake, there is little to find funny in the ashes. The insurance adjuster must have an appreciation for dark humor, as well, since he didn’t make any notes when I mentioned the barn also contained an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Ark of the Covenant, and several lost Picasso paintings.

With a nod to the sense of humor and understanding of my insurance adjuster, here are my best attempts.

  • Wasn’t there a scene in Bambi like this?
  • We won’t have to worry about deer freeloading from the field for a while.
  • I bet this is what Hell will look like.
  • Mrs. Cunha was disappointed the firefighters bore no resemblance to her calendar.
  • My daughter wanted to know why they didn’t bring a Dalmatian with them.
  • It was a barn-burner of an afternoon.
  • Feel the Bern!

If you ever find yourself on the wrong end of a fire (and I’m pretty sure there is not really a “right” end of a fire to be on), here are five things to keep in mind as you sift through the ashes.

Fire is hot

“No kidding, Fire Marshall Carlos,” you might be telling yourself. What I mean is things that get caught in a fire stay hot for a surprisingly long time. The heat was still noticeable through the soles of my boots when I walked around surveying the damage the next day, and there were still pockets of what I suspect were large roots that were still smoldering just below the surface.

Check buildings and equipment because the heat from a fire radiates a surprising distance. Turn on faucets to ensure the water flows and test underground power lines with a voltmeter. Plastic pipes, wire insulation, and even panes of glass will begin to melt and deform well before combustible items around them show evidence of heat and flame.

Gear up

The natural reaction to this type of catastrophe is to assess the damage. Mrs. Cunha and I were inspecting the losses while trees were still on fire and fence posts were still smoldering. It’s a natural reaction, and for most of us who are not part of the volunteer fire department, gives the property owner something to do besides standing around worrying. I won’t begrudge anyone taking what action they are able, just don’t get yourself in trouble. Take a battle-buddy, take some communication, and leave the damn dog at the house.

Wear your heavy boots, long pants, and gloves. If you’re a Safety Sally, I won’t fault you for taking a hardhat, eye protection, and long sleeves. Wear what you think is appropriate. Taking along a tool like a hoe or a metal rake is a good idea, since you will likely want to pick up or dig out something that I guarantee will be too hot to touch.

Inspect often

You’re first tour through the debris will be overwhelming. Not in the sense that it gives you PTSD (or it might, depending on what you’ve done in life), but fire changes the look of the landscape in such a significant way that the woods I was hunting a few days prior were near unrecognizable. The sights and smells and feel of everything will be alien. It takes a second to process what was a fourteen-foot tall barn when I walked by yesterday is now eight inches high.

The first month, I averaged walking the woods or the field every other day. After that, I poked around the trees a couple times a week for the next month. Each time, I found something new that made my heart sink; another break in the fence, another bulldozer gouge in the hillside, a marketable-size tree charred past use as lumber and now firewood, if I’m lucky. You’ll find something new each sortie for quite a while, so take all the pain now.

No touchy, touchy

Whatever you do while poking around the ruins, keep in mind that you are traipsing around in a crime scene. Well, not really, but kind of. It’s better to err on the side of caution than to do something that jams you up later. Let me explain.

Several different people were inspecting the damage in the course of this whole thing. There was a report from the fire department that included input from the forestry service, three visits by insurance adjusters, contractors for building estimates, and a survey by a certified forester. Starting the clean-up process too soon might very well have affected an accurate calculation of the loss sustained. Do yourself and your pocketbook a favor by suppressing the urge get everything back to normal until everyone who needs to take a look has done so.

Not all is lost

At some point in this process, you will have a solid grasp of the losses. We were lucky. There was no loss of life, people or animals. We lost a structure, some agricultural products, and a bit of future profit. Losing livestock would have been terrible, but losing humans would have been devastating. I have nothing to offer that will help fill the void left by loss of a loved one, but short of that, everything is replaceable. We will amend the field and crops will grow again. Burning out the undergrowth will likely help the trees in the long run.

img_20161225_170713399Heck, seven weeks after the fire, the grass had begun to poke through the charred earth enough to lure a couple of does into the open. I filled my freezer with one of them Christmas afternoon, so maybe there is something good to pluck from this entire mess.

In a spurt of optimism in my prowess as an apex predator and putting aside her pique at me for delaying Christmas dinner for butchering a deer, Mrs. Cunha purchase a stand-up freezer for all the wild game she expected to be dragged back to the house. We didn’t see another deer the rest of the season.

That’s about how life goes.

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Planned Parenthood on the Farm

1Plan all you like, homestead life is a daily prioritization of what absolutely needs to be accomplished today. The farm doesn’t care about your plans. She has her own agenda, and takes Hera’s pleasure in tormenting us. The weather, animals, and kids frequently run on their own timetable, as well. Getting events to occur when we want them to is a never-ending struggle.

My farm craps all over my plans every chance she gets.

It’s not so much the half dozen emergencies that pop up every day, but the emergencies created by the emergencies. A collapsed shelf in the garage leads to a rotted stud leads to a scavenger hunt for tools that were supposed to be in my tool belt which leads to “Honey, the dog barfed” which leads to a trip to Home depot where I buy a replacement tool for the lost one, a ceiling fan that’s on sale for too cheap not to buy, crown molding in the perfect profile that I’ll never have time to put up, and the obligatory trip through the garden department for plants.

By now, I should know better than to even try fighting it.

Butchering is one of those time-consuming chores that tends to be put off the most by farmstead emergencies. Once started, there aren’t many points where you can say, “Let’s finish this tomorrow,” so even a minor hiccup can push butchering to a whole different day.

VZM.IMG_20150527_185020 (2)Add in some bad weather (I still butcher outdoors) and a parent-teacher conference, and the next thing you know, the meat is not quite so tender. At least, there’s more of it, so I’ve got that going for me.

“It’s only a few more days of feeding them. It’s not a big deal,” we tell each other. “Things come up, right?”

That’s how you wind up running a petting zoo instead of a farm.

We’ve been fairly successful getting our rabbits to breed. Not that our breeding buck Sampson needs much encouragement. He’s always enthused about the project. The does usually aren’t, but they oblige by closing their eyes and thinking of England.

I was out of town for work this week (an occurrence that disrupts writing entirely too often) and my wife texted me concerned about one of our rabbits. He seemed to be having some mild respiratory difficulty after several days of rain.

^F979AF5927F4DE104E2DCC2D19BC4E2F44E83F56975D01B8C4^pimgpsh_fullsize_distrAfter a similar experience in January that necessitated culling four of an eight-rabbit litter and turning the master bedroom bathtub into an Intensive Care Unit for the survivors, my wife immediately segregated him from the rest.

We actually only had to put down three. The fourth died while we were running to the co-op for antibiotics.

Respiratory ailments are a pretty common occurrence in rabbits. At least, they are on my farm. It’s probably a function of using rabbit tractors as grow-out cages. You have to be cognizant of placement and keep a sharp eye on them to catch problems early.

photo (97)In a perfect world, everybody would have their own cage up off the ground and under a four-sided structure with an opaque roof that let in sunshine. I don’t live in a perfect world.

My breeders are treated like gold. They get their own private cage in the Rabbit Condo, but the ones going to Camp Frigidaire live a more Spartan life. They get ample food, water, shelter, and enough handling to keep them from going feral, but ultimately, they are livestock.

Even with their relatively spoiled existence, the breeders don’t see a veterinarian, either. The replacement cost simply doesn’t justify the vet bills. My homestead is a business; not an animal sanctuary.

If it can’t be fixed on the farm, whatever that rabbit has wrong with it will likely be fatal. That’s just the hard, economic reality.

^E8061E0AF8DCED3E3AB6E54B485FCE5EC18EE33F1C46DA66DA^pimgpsh_fullsize_distrA few minutes later, my wife sent me a photo of the rabbit with a respiratory problem. In addition to a case of the sniffles, this fella had a racing stripe of missing fur along most of his spine.

We formulated a quick plan that began with isolation and ended with putting him down, if he wasn’t better in a few days. We attributed the missing fur to him getting beaten up by the other rabbits because the edges were too defined and consistent to be the result of illness.

The upshot was that we might be addressing two problems by separating out one rabbit, instead of having to deal with two problems spread across two rabbits. As much as it turns into victim blaming and runs counter to my sense of fairness, managing livestock turns homesteaders into prison wardens.

^4D870823F9DD39701C1C757DB3ECE31E35A86B276AD62EAEAB^pimgpsh_fullsize_distrOne animal beating up on the others can be corrected by separating out the problem animal, and ultimately be cured by invoking the “behave or be eaten” policy, but when the entire recreation yard turns on one inmate, the only effective action is to pull that one poor bastard out of the general population.

So, inmate number 122 (I don’t name my eating animals) was placed in a single-man cage, given antibiotics, had his wounds dressed, and generally made as comfortable as possible.

And the little turd only grew sicker.

By late evening, Mrs. Carlos came to the realization this fella would likely have to be put down, which is always a bummer because it is meat lost. Out of a twisted sense of gratitude, we don’t eat our breeding stock, and neither do we eat animals that were felled by illness.

IMG_0485As I would be out of town for a while, and Mrs. Carlos hasn’t a sufficiently hard heart to fill the role of Grim Reaper to animals she has raised, the responsibility fell to my oldest son. He was already in bed, so the ailing rabbit was given overnight to show signs of improvement or Carlos, Jr. would be given a lesson in manhood before boarding the school bus; namely, protect those you love from nightmares.

Whether you assume them for others, protect from them, or cause them, nightmares are part of being a warrior.

A year ago, I wrote about the ISIS-run slave markets that had popped up in Mosul. I can only imagine this was about what it was like for the unfortunate inmate number 122 to be incorrectly sexed and placed in the male grow-out pen.

Yeah. We screwed the pooch on that one.

Actually, it didn’t have anything to do with a dog, and neither of us, as far as I can recall, participated in what I suppose was the most stealthy episode of rabbit gang rape in history. I just imagine nonchalant cellmates acting as lookouts and signaling the others to be cool whenever a human approached. It must have looked like a cross between a Disney movie and Midnight Express.

How do I come to this conclusion? Seven sleek, wriggling little creatures that vaguely resembled rabbits piled into a corner of the cage were the first indication that a grievous error had be committed.

Law enforcement types call that a clue.

In our defense, rabbit genitalia is notoriously nebulous. Sexing a rabbit is tricky and far from definite, even for experienced rabbit ranchers. Mix-ups happen, but they are embarrassing, so not a lot of people admit to them.

As would be expected of an unplanned litter kitted in an unprepared cage, none survived in the end. We are uncertain of the combination of causes; Mamma’s youth and inexperience kitting, unprepared housing, or even perhaps, smothering while attempting to keep them warm. I don’t know about the likelihood of that last reason.

IMG_0446While sorting through the pile of survivors, Mrs. Cunha found one; cold to the touch and barely moving.

We tightly control breeding, so the does kindle on a schedule that fits best with the rhythm of our farm. At this point, it’s mostly based on freezer space. Even if we were filling a demand for rabbit beyond personal consumption, I’m not sure I like the idea of letting the rabbits set their own breeding schedule. That’s why I’m not terribly enamored with the colony approach. It’s just not for us, right now.

And here is why my wife is a far better human being than I am.

My initial impulse was to cull the remaining kit. Mamma had a ticket on the bullet train for either Freezer Camp or Compost City that would be departing long before the kit weaned, and there was no wet-nurse available.

This is exactly why we time litters to coincide, so we can redistribute kits to balance the workload. Rabbit nursing is a socialist endeavor on our homestead.

I’m not used to culling out such small creatures, so I had to weigh my options. While I stood contemplating the most humane and least messy method of accomplishing my task, Mrs. Cunha’s mothering instinct kicked in, and she snatched the kit up before I could.

Despite the doe seemingly on the mend, she still harbored a respiratory ailment, and my wife wasn’t about to relinquish her new foster child to Typhoid Mary.


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