Tuesday, August 26, 2014

When it rains it pours

So Thursday evening last week I was supposed to go to book club about 20 minutes away, but part way there I had several signs that it might not be the smartest move, so I turned around and came home. Little did I know that the danger wasn't where I was headed, it was to my home. Not even an hour later we had self evacuated with no notice (aka grab kids, the baby's carseat, the dogs, get out into the truck, worry about seatbelts and installed carseats down the road while the driveway is still somewhat passable while fearing for the house's future) due to extremely heavy rains bringing debris flows down off the hillside to our north.
As the flood waters moved across the alfalfa field next door.

One flow came down headed for our garage, and split, coming down our driveway, across the chicken yard, through the side garden, and down on through the pig area. The other part of that flow veered to the other side of the garage, and went down the field there to join with the stuff coming out the bottom and side of the pig area. Another flow came down just on the other side of our property, and curved in and took out our lower garden. Then the creek and some irrigation lakes let loose and the bottom and middle fields flooded, and were covered with silt and mud.
Blurry photo of the entire alfalfa field covered in flood waters, as darkness fell on the landscape and the heavy rain finally started to let up a bit.

When we left for the first time that evening, we didn't get far. Another much larger flow had eroded the road, and was mohawking water, mud, rocks, and other debris. We call the drainage up above it big valley for a reason, but we've never seen it flow at all, let alone that much. Later on, after returning to our luckily still standing and not impacted house, we were evacuated again by the county, as they were concerned about not knowing whether all of the irrigation dams had blown, or what was in store for the rest of the night. We went to a coworkers cabin and spent a restless night, returning in the morning to find all animals accounted for, although pens and gardens were all rather the worse for wear.

Debris flows on the left of this picture met at the bottom of the garden with the flood waters, which swept across the entire lower and part of the middle field, bending fence posts clear to the ground if they weren't swept away entirely.

We've mostly dug the salvageable produce out of the gardens, but clearing the 1.5-2 foot deep sand/silt/debris off the top may have to wait until we know more about whether/how often these flows will happen in the next few years before the burned areas revegetate.
flows swept through the chicken runs, underneath the chicken coop, through the garden, pig pen, and then down to meet with the flood waters.
We are hoping that this rainstorm, which produced the heaviest sustained rain (about 2 hours of steady very very heavy rain, perhaps the heaviest we have seen here), and which got stuck for several hours on top of us/the drainages that feed down to us, was an anomaly, but we aren't sure how optimistic to be at this point.
The lower garden was covered in about 18 inches plus of debris and sand, totalling squash, zucchini, lettuce, and making harvest of onions, leeks, carrots, and potatoes extremely challenging. Not to mention knocking down and covering the garden fencing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Grocery Envelope Update

So it seems like it was almost two years ago when I last updated on where we were at with our grocery budget. A lot has happened since then, after all we added a new member to our family (Baby E, who likely should be upgraded to Little E as she has been walking for about 4 months now, and is really a baby no longer!), and the kids both have gotten older & bigger. So we've increased our food needs, but we have tried to keep with the same approximate monthly budgeted grocery amount (well, I've upped it about twenty bucks).

So I thought it might be helpful to share what has happened in the last two years that has worked, some of which I figured out from what didn't work as well. Leading the list of what has worked is using just cash. At the beginning of the month, or the last week of the last month, I go and take out our grocery budget in twenties, and put it in an envelope. At first I was just using an envelope from the bank, or a recycled one from the mail, but at some point I saved up for and purchased a zippered fabric envelope (from here back before she started her new shop and mostly closed down Gussy Sews). The grocery money being in a real zippered pouch is great, there is room for a pen, sticky notes, old receipts, and best of all, it looks fabulous AND doesn't need replacing every couple months to avoid loosing small change!

Once money got even tighter (ie once we were trying to stretch our purchasing power to feed bigger mouths, and once food costs really started inching up noticeably here in the last 6-8 months), what worked even better was to divide the monthly money up into weekly amounts. Before I started doing this, I was starting to get to the end of the month, and be on pretty basic rations, or not be able to get more milk for a few days until the next month, or I would end up starting the next month's money a day or two before the end of the current month just so we had enough. This way, it is much much easier for me to ensure that I'm not buying (and eating!) higher end meals in the start of the month and running out before the end of the month.

After a few months of doing that, I realized an additional trick that helped even more, to have a twenty set aside just in case (if we ran out of money one week, if we all of a sudden needed a bunch of more expensive bulk things all at once, etc). And the hope with that twenty, was that that hopefully wasn't used in a given month, and so was thus moved into a 'pantry' type envelope the following month, available for purchasing staple-type items that we use often when they are at deep sale prices. My goal with this was to gradually build up a sort of pantry at home, purchased at the lowest price I've seen items, that each week I could 'purchase' from at that low low price, thus replenishing the 'pantry' envelope, and thus money from that week's allocated funds to be gradually put towards more elaborate menus, or heck, just more food as the kids' appetites grow!

My thinking overall was that eventually we would get to a place where our limited funds in the grocery category wouldn't be so limiting, so we could eat pricier meals, or so we could reduce our grocery budget and put that money into another category instead.

It was all working fairly well although I was still struggling with the pantry twenty some months, both in terms of saving it, and in terms of keeping those pantry items separate and 'paying' for the at home back into the pantry envelope - it was a bit trickier than I was anticipating, and thus not all that user-friendly. But then the fire happened, and most of what was in the fridge had to be tossed at the end of the 8 days without electricity, with only intermittent generator power that was especially non-existent at the beginning. Luckily the freezer contents (we have a stand alone upright freezer next to the fridge that keeps a lot of produce and lots of meat) fared a bit better, although some less dense stuff had to be fed to the pigs as it lost its consistency/got freezer burned although as far as we could tell it all stayed cold enough to be safe to eat.

So obviously during our evacuation we used more grocery money than we had allocated for the month, and I was able to flex things around to give us the grace to do that, but even after our return, this month, I've found that we are struggling to stay within the budget, as there are a bunch of fridge items that needed replacing, on top of the usual stuff, and then there were a bunch of things like chicken stock, half cans of beans, etc, that were frozen in the little freezer on top of the fridge, and I just tossed those outright, so I'm finding that a lot of things that I would typically grab a small amount from the freezer, instead of making or buying a whole bunch, just aren't an option right now.

So now I'm having to decide do we drop down to cheaper meals (more beans & rice type things, and less meat) for a bit, or do I up the grocery budget for a few months until we get things replaced. Sigh. Decisions decisions!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Getting back to 'Normal'

2 weeks after the fire almost took our house out, a new fire, started by a spark from the rim of a flat trailer tire, took out 10 more homes a little ways further north of us, growing to slightly over 500 acres in just a few hours. These people, some of them friends and acquaintances, had mere minutes to get out, and were not in any way in harms way even a half hour before.

During the two days after, a crazy series of thunderstorm cells moved through and sparked another bunch of wildfires, thankfully most of which were quickly contained, but two of which are still burning and providing a second influx of crazy smokey air to our little valley.

Up our little side valley, the storm that moved through didn't start any new fires, after all, there really is not much left to burn, but it whipped the air around like crazy, causing grey-out conditions at our house several times over the course of the afternoon, with all of the ash, dust, and dirt that the wildfires left behind blown up and around.

Today, of course there is still a tree stump visibly smoldering on the hill above our house, and a second series of thundercells are supposed to be moving over the next few days. We are all pretty exhausted of dealing with the constant extra vigilance that is required, the smoke, and the stress.

I'm ready to be past the phase of looking at pictures and remembering what the background looked like before, ready to be done the firsts - first full moon rising through the blackened burnt dead trees on the far hill slope, etc, and move on into the new still natural, will be green again someday soon, normal. After all, fire is a natural part of the habitat we live in.

And on the up side, there have been many beautiful sunset shots, and the gardens are doing really well with all of the heat we have been getting (I can't remember a day where the high temp wasn't in the 90's or over 100).

The house is slowly getting put back into a relatively tidy place after our evacuation, and the up top neighbors, who lost their (second home) house to the fire, have had sightings of their two lost horses in the last couple days, indicating that both survived the fire (previous to that we suspected only one had, and hadn't seen him in over 2 weeks). So, life is moving onwards, and things will recover, slowly, with time.

However we are all pretty much ready for winter to come, for snow to fly and put out the fires once and for all, for clear cold nights, and for the return of the bright bluebird sky days that this area is usually known for. Ready for time to fade the stress, to blur the old memories of green forests full of trees, and to allow us to be fond once more of this newly changed landscape we live in.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Before, During, and After

So I likely haven't mentioned exactly where I live on the blog before. But the story I'm going to share today lets that little secret out of the bag, so here it is. I live in Okanogan County, in Washington State.

On the east side of the Methow Valley, towards the south.

The east side that has been devastated by the so-called Carlton Complex wildfire.
Last official acreage I saw had approximately 250,000 acres burned. I can't even fathom that many acres. Except I can. It is almost the entire forest I know between here and my husband's work, between here and the larger town we stock up in once a month or so. Much of the forest is black. Moonscape. Charred beyond recognition.

Approximately 300 structures burned, I'm not sure if that is inclusive of barns and outbuildings or not, as in the last couple days as deputies were finally able to get around and drive the roads to check on houses, and that number doubled from 150 to 300 overnight as they realized the extent of the damages.

Luckily, three times lucky to be exact, our house survived. The gardens, apart from pig-caused damage due to loss of electricity for over a week, survived also. The chickens and pigs are doing well too. But the rest, the riparian along our little creek, the forested north-facing hillslope, the sage-brush dominated south-facing hillslope, charred beyond recognition in most places. The pines just north of our house by the pullout, torched (and responsible for the second attempt on the house).

At least three of our neighbors, one being a part-timer, have lost their homes. Two in the initial roll through as the Cougar Flats fire steamrolled south aided by high winds and extremely hot & dry conditions, and ended up on top of us, prompting a very short notice level three (get out right now) evacuation with no other notice than the smoke plume getting closer and closer behind the hills to our north. The other may have been due to a poorly set back burn, which also almost took our place out.

We were so very lucky in that my husband was able on Friday to go to the house and see if it was still standing from the huge fire that forced evacuations Thursday late afternoon, and his presence is honestly the only reason why the house is still standing. He witnessed the secondary fire come down the hill slope just to our north. Torch the large pines. He left, as the fire spotted across the road, melted our old white fence, approached the house, and as he was thinking it was all over, that it was just too dangerous and hot, and with only him, luckily at that point a neighbor and two locals out sightseeing drove by, and together the four of them went back and saved it, running buckets of water from our (luckily gravity fed thus still functioning without electricity) irrigation water, and the neighbor (who lost his house later that day, although he is a part-timer so it wasn't his primary residence) offered the use of his mini excavator to run lines around the house to stop any more fire from slowly burning grasses up to the house.

Then the same friend who helped us load a second vehicle of our possessions in the moments before we had to evacuate on the day before, came down and helped my husband finish up, get the animals into safer locations, complete the lines around the house and fields. And then the fire picked back up, spotted way across the alfalfa field to the south hillside, and they had to leave quickly as it got too dangerous yet again. My husband drove to me and the girls thinking that it was done, that the house was sure to burn.

But it pulled through, all their work paid off. The house was still standing Saturday morning. We were so lucky to have those neighbors, friends, to help us. We stayed with those friends for 2 days after we were evacuated, before I couldn't handle the constant stress of fires all around us, constant huge mushroom clouds of smoke southwards in the direction of our house and my husband's work, and the constant noise of the airplanes and helicopters flying overhead as they were fighting the fire. I then left with the girls and dogs to the other side of the mountains to stay with my sister-in-law and her family live. We stayed there a week, and returned on the weekend, to see the house for the first time in 9 sleeps. To see my husband in the first time in 7 days.

We are fine. Shaken, mourning, overwhelmed at times, but overall we are grateful to be alive, to have our house, to be ok. The community is rallying, moving from disaster, crisis, on into recovery, repair. We are so thankful for our friends, our neighbors, our family, the firefighters and first responders, and so heartbroken for those who lost their homes, their possessions, their livestock to this fire.
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