A Season of Drought and Wildfire Changed My Food Preserving

Reader Contribution by Susan Gregersen
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The Summer of No Rain

This year the rains didn’t come. We don’t have a well and rely heavily on the rainwater we collect during our “rainy season” in May and June, along with whatever is left of the snow melt in our rain barrels and tanks. We also rely on water pumped using a gas-powered pump from a marsh 700 feet away. This year, the tanks stayed empty and the marsh nearly dried up – so much so that we couldn’t pump water out of it.

May was dry but we expected the rain to pick up as we got into June. Normally, it’s hard to even get the garden planted between rains, so no one was worried at first. We went through the entire month of June, a month that is normally our heaviest rainfall, without a drop of rain. May 23 was the last entry in my journal for rain. It was a light shower. And it didn’t rain again until a light shower on July 5, which was followed by only a few other showers over the rest of July and August.

Fireworks were canceled in towns across the region on Independence Day. The grass was brown and crackled when we walked on it. Fire restrictions were in place and, amazingly, there were no wildfires over the summer in our county — until one night in early August.

The Fire Starts!

My son works at a nearby golf course that has cameras on the course, which also cover the mountainside behind the course. During the night of August 11, a camera captured a lightning strike high on the shoulder of the mountain. By morning, a thin column of smoke was rising, and within a few days it had spread over the shoulders of five adjoining mountains.

Our property was never in danger from the flames but the smoke filled the valley to a choking thickness. No one was evacuated but we left for a few days to clear our lungs. We moved valuables such as pictures, journals, financial and tax records to our daughter’s house 70 miles away.

We gathered garden tools and the rototiller to the center of the garden where they would be safe if the wind shifted and the fire jumped the highway and headed our way. In years past we had thinned the trees around the house and garden, and pruned limbs up at least ten feet above the ground, for fire safety. I store my canners and dehydrators in the root cellar, so I knew they would be safe. They’re considered essential tools, since most of our food is preserved with them.

After two fire- and smoke-filled weeks, the temperatures cooled and rains came. All that is left now is wispy columns of smoke where hot spots continue to smolder. Our area came out better than other places in that no structures were lost as the fire burned 6,700 acres alongside our valley. No lives were lost here, thankfully, but this summer will long be remembered as the scars of the fire dominate the view for years to come.

The Summer with No Garden

In the last 20 or 30 years, I can’t think of even one summer that I didn’t plant a garden of some kind. Even when we first bought our place in the woods of Montana, we stuck some potatoes and onions in the poor soil, and started fruit trees and berry bushes. The lack of water was the reason behind our hard decision not to plant the garden this year. I had a few tomato and pepper plants in my little greenhouse, and that was it. My fingers twitched at not being able to work in the dirt.

We began hitting the local farmer’s market for fresh produce. The prices were reasonable but getting the quantities I’d hoped for was difficult. There were mainly tomatoes, peppers, onions, and greens. In our short growing season it’s unusual to be able to grow sweet corn, green beans, and other warmer-season vegetables.

The mountain where the fire started is our prime huckleberry-picking spot. Although we don’t know yet whether the mountainside covered with berry bushes survived the fire, the roads into the forest were and remain closed and we were unable to pick berries. We normally pick 6 to 9 gallons to preserve for use over the winter. Our raspberry patches barely produced this year. Later this fall, I hope to buy cases of apples or peaches and other foods to preserve, from truck-load sales.

Our garden is usually filled with potatoes, carrots, onions, broccoli, celery, and all types of greens. We supplement that with wild game and make excellent stews and pot pies over the winter. Fortunately I usually have a surplus to preserve, so we won’t have to buy all of our food this winter, and we’ll be able to eat up some jars that have been sitting on the shelves for a few years. So perhaps the dearth of foods to preserve this year isn’t all bad.

It will be odd not to see the bundles of dry spinach and kale hanging from the overhead beam in our cabin this winter, and not have the pungent smell of onions drying on racks behind the wood stove on shelf brackets hung for that use. The root cellar won’t have the wooden bins filled with potatoes and carrots, and I won’t be sweeping snow away from the root cellar door to gather them in a basket for that day’s meal. I’ll buy what I can, but it’s kind of a scary way to head into winter. I hope turkey and deer hunting season will still be productive. And I will be more thankful than ever in future years for the bounty from our garden and woods, and our ability to preserve those foods.

Photos courtesy of and used with permission from Stonehenge Air Museum at Crystal Lakes Golf Course, Fortine, Montana

More information and pictures are available at Susan’s blog. This blog is a companion to several of her published books and centers around food preservation and food storage. Click here to browse her books.

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