Cooking in the West
July 16, 2021
It is a tough year in Montana with drought, grasshoppers, and now wildfires. As I write this, our Musselshell Ranch is under evacuation order from the Peterson Fire. We are praying that our place will be spared while knowing that our neighbors to the north are losing almost all of their pasture as the fire explodes, and we can only pray for their livestock, their structures, and the fire fighters. All we can really do is wait to see which way the wind blows the fire.
My heart breaks for the affected landowners, because I have been there several times. We have had four major fires burn through our Musselshell ranch in 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2012. I encourage anyone who is able to donate time or money or needed supplies, because that is the most important thing at this time. The only way survivors of natural disasters keep getting up every morning is knowing that others care and want to help.
There are no words to express the gratitude a burnt out land owner feels towards everyone from the person who brings a case of water and some brownies to the neighbor who leaves his hayfield for days to work day and night trying to get a ring around your fire. The volunteers are the real heroes on any fire. The teams that come in are greatly appreciated, but they are getting paid. It is the volunteers that make one realize how truly good humans are--especially in crisis. My heart goes out to the fire victims. This is a column I wrote about the last big fire we experienced, and I hope that by sharing it, I might help the fire victims know that they will come out of this on the other side and let the volunteers know that their service is indescribably admirable and appreciated.
The call came in about 1:30 p.m. on June 26, 2012. Our neighbor at our Musselshell ranch, Barb Shanahan, said, "There's a fire on Thompson's, and it's heading towards you guys!" Everyone in Musselshell County must have a fire radio, because the phone kept ringing. I tried to answer calls, pack a bag, feed the pets, turn the horses out, and just think straight. That didn't work very well, because I drove off without my suitcase, so I arrived 165 miles away without so much as a toothbrush or a change of clothes.
North of Billings, a huge fire was mushrooming up. I knew that couldn't be our fire, but it closed Highway 87 ahead of me. I backtracked to the Fattig Creek Road and raced down the dusty back roads to Roundup. My car thermometer read 100 degrees, and the wind was blowing hard. My heart was in my throat. The conditions were right for a fire to run for miles in a short time.
By the time I finally reached the ranch, the fire departments were staging structure protection, and our buildings had been foamed. I cooked some burgers for the firefighters and prayed that the house would still be standing tomorrow. About 11:30 p.m. we were asked to leave the house, because the pine trees on the hill just behind the house were crowning. I watched from the road as tree after tree burst into flames, roared into torches as their branches burned, and then died down into orange glows. I was sure the buildings were going to go, as the embers showered out over us like a Fourth of July fireworks display. The neighbor volunteers and the Hawk Creek Fire Department and Melstone Fire Department never backed down or out. The fire guards held, and they put out spot fires started by the embers. As the wave of fire passed by, I felt that I had witnessed a miracle.
We were lucky. Although we lost 1500 acres of much needed summer pasture and the house that my Grandma Roberts had moved into in 1940, we did not lose anything else of value such as our cows, horses, corrals, or occupied homes. We have had four fires burn through the ranch since we took over in 1991. We have survived each one only because of the army of volunteers that have helped us through it each time. Some were friends and neighbors, but others were strangers that cared.
It is difficult to look into their red-rimmed, smoke irritated eyes and not feel humbled. Their faces are black from smoke and soot, and most of them have pale tracks of tears running down their cheeks from the eye irritation. They look like depressed mimes, but they are really angels in fire suits. Their lungs are full of smoke. They are wearing jackets and wool pants in 100 degree temperatures. They have been on their feet for over 24 hours, and they are beyond exhaustion. They have volunteered to risk their lives to save our livelihood. How can a simple thank you be enough? It is not, but that and a burger is all we have to offer them.
Unfortunately, I cannot thank everyone by name from the grader and cat operators to the firefighters to the cooks, errand runners, and even the people who just called or showed up with offers to do anything we needed. I marveled at Kay Rosin, who spent all afternoon and most of the night fighting our fire while her husband lay in a hospital bed fighting Stage 4 cancer or Ray Giebel who turned 80 during the fire. At 2:30 a.m., on June 27, I watched him hustle around our buildings stamping out embers with a pulaski.
The best thing about a natural disaster is that it puts things in proper perspective. We instantly understand what has value--friendship, dedication, loyalty, compassion, and courage--not things that burn. We realize just how insignificant we really are in this universe.
We also realize there is no way to repay these people who put their lives on hold to help us out of a tight spot. The dictionary does not adequately define "volunteer." It takes firsthand experience to understand how grateful one can be to hear the neighbor's dozer clanking over a rimrock trenching a line that will save your childhood home.
Volunteers are heroes, and appreciation is their only reward. Thank you to all the volunteers out there fighting the fires of 2021, and God be with the victims of those fires. The spirit that brought you to this point in time will sustain you through this, but it sure is nice to know so many people care about what is happening to you!
In case a fire starts up in your neighborhood, here are some great recipes to feed them!
4 eggs, beaten
2 C. sugar
2/3 C. vegetable oil
2 t. vanilla
2 dashes salt
1 1/2 C. flour
1/2 C. cocoa
Mix all ingredients together. Add nuts if desired. Bake at 350 degrees in a greased 9 X 13 pan for 20 minutes. (Kay Rosin mentioned above told me that my mother had made these brownies during the 98 fire, and when Kay came to evacuate her, she asked Kay to serve the fire fighters brownies while she searched for her favorite pants to take with her.)
Jan Counter’s Poppy Seed Chicken Casserole:
Boil, bone, and cube one chicken
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 pt. sour cream
Combine in another bowl:
1 stick butter, melted
2 t. poppy seeds
1 stack crushed Ritz crackers
Layer chicken then soup then cracker layers. Repeat, ending with crackers. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Jeri Flanagan’s Snicker Salad:
1 bag fun size Snickers, chopped in pieces
4 large Granny Smith apples, cored and chopped (skins on)
12 oz. Cool Whip, thawed
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 small jar marshmallow creme
Mix Cool Whip, marshmallow creme, and cream cheese. Combine with Snickers pieces and apples. Mix well and serve.