Remarkable Ranch Women of Surprise Valley, California

RANGE magazine Winter 2021/Finalist for WWW Downing Award

Lightning struck in rugged country in the Red Rocks/Clarks Valley area south of Surprise Valley, Calif., in mid-August of 2020. The W-5 Cold Springs fire would burn until early September, charring some 85,000 acres. That doesn’t sound like a big fire by today’s standards, but it was the biggest on BLM-administered public lands in 2020.

Several ranching families run their cattle ‘in common,’ on a huge unfenced piece of land here called the Tuledad Allotment. Tuledad is a country of steep canyons, with juniper-fringed rimrocks stepping down into narrow draws. There was plenty of water in the waterholes at the beginning of the season, but no rain all summer. However, fire, as scary as it can be, is something folks are ready for out here.

Among the permittees are Christian and Cassie Cockrell Oyarzun (Oy-ar-ZUN), Cassie’s sister Ashley Cockrell, John Estill, and Tom and Tiffany Martinez. There were close to (XXX) head of cattle on this range when the fire started.

“The fire moved east at first,” Ashley said. She and her dad had 400 head in the Red Rocks area; they had mixed with cows from Estill’s Bare Ranch at the south end of the valley. Friends and family gathered to help move them north.

“The BLM had the fire under control, had lines around it,” said her sister Cassie. But the teams were spread thin, wind overwhelmed the crews and the fire jumped the fire line. “We went to pull the cattle out.” It was a long day, but “we thought we were good. We were going to dump them in a field.”

Cassie’s husband Christian, and Deb Cockrell, Cassie and Ashley’s mom, went back up to check. “There were other ranchers there gathering; we saw the fire coming over the hill. Then we got a call that said, ‘Get the cattle out of that field and put them down in the green meadow.’” They mounted up. They pushed hard to get the pairs out of harm’s way, moving them from the pasture that had been their destination down to the margin of the lake. “That fire stayed right on our tails the whole way,” said Ashley.

Meanwhile, Tiffany Martinez and her kids, 14-year-old Brennan and 13-year-old Adelia, were gathering on the east side of the ridge. The fire was running parallel to them as they moved another 250 head north and east, but they couldn’t see it. “We thought it was going up into the high country,” said Brennan, “but it didn’t. It came down, right on top of us.”

They spent the night out there. “The men were up in the hills ahead of us,” said Tiffany, “pushing the cattle with four-wheelers down to where the kids and I could pick them up and keep them moving.” Back and forth, for hours. The kids, including 13-year-old Adelia, stuck it out all night.

“I just didn’t want the cows to die,” she said. “Because I love them.”

Meanwhile, Deb Cockrell followed the firefighters with the pickup and horse trailer, hauling exhausted mounts, bringing fresh ones. She brought food and water on the four-wheeler. When she wasn’t doing that, she was taking care of the grandkids, while her daughters rode into the smoke.

By the next day, Ashley and Cassie were helping the neighbors. The sisters, born 14 months apart, have always been close. “We played sports together, rodeoed together,” says Cassie. They went to Chico State together, but then Cassie came home, and Ashley went to University of California-Davis, for vet school. This time, they fought fire together.

 The fire had moved north into the Warner Mountains. “John Estill had a lot of cattle in front of the fire,” says Cassie, “and they were short of help.” The sisters started at seven that morning, climbing into the high country. They followed tracks from Sworinger Reservoir into a narrow, juniper-lined canyon, hoping to find nearly 200 head of baby pairs (mother cows with very young calves).

“We rode back in there about three miles toward the south, toward the fire, looking for these cows. Ashley and I were riding with one of Estill’s Peruvian cowboys. He had minimal English– and we had just a little Spanish.” Communication was basic.

The further they went, the hairier it got.They found the cows, 180 head of pasture-raised cattle from southern California. “They don’t like to move and they don’t like to stay mothered up.” They were supposed to turn south and trail down-canyon to the Bare Ranch. But “the fire was in the pine trees, burning in the mountains right above us. We could hear it roaring. “We were down in a hole. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”

“We had to go north,” said Ashley. The cows did not want to travel.  “We pushed those poor babies so hard.” One cow had calved maybe thirty minutes before. Said Cassie, “We had to leave her back.” 

As they drove the herd north, “a BLM helicopter came and circled around us. That didn’t really help, them just going around and around above us.” But the helo had been sent to try to find the women who had gone after the cattle.

 Adding to their difficulty, soon after the helicopter left them, they ran into a Forest Service exclosure, a patch of meadow fenced off to measure what the landscape would look like without grazing. Frequently an exclosure will block access to a stream. Many are no longer maintained, so the fences are partly down.

“We had calves going everywhere, lost in the willows,” said Ashley. “We cut fences, but we couldn’t cut enough fences. We were on our horses, off our horses, roping calves, dragging them out. My two dogs were just exhausted.” Their horses had given them everything they had.

 “We lost track of a whole bunch of calves there,” said Cassie. “We pushed and pushed and pushed. Then we came to a steep canyon. The cows were pooped. They weren’t going to cross it.” They had to drive the exhausted young mothers and their babies back to the west, uphill, to where they could get on a road that would finally lead them out of danger. Finally, twelve hours later, they got the mob down to the valley floor. Almost all the country the sisters had gathered that morning was on fire.

The community spent not quite a week moving cattle. After the first days, the fire moved into the high rims, and the animals were out of danger. At the end of the day, the families, including the moms, the grandmas, and the kids in junior high, fought that fire. They helped their neighbors survive. “That’s what Surprise Valley does,” says Tiffany. “We help each other.”

Fire makes sisters of us all.

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