2011-10-13 / General Stories

Why Down Home Ranch Urgently Needs Your Help

Down Home Ranch is a nonprofit located between Elgin and Taylor close to the Three Oaks Mine. It was founded by Jerry and Judy Horton to be a community for adults with Down syndrome like their daughter Kelly. Today the Ranch is home to 28 people with intellectual disabilities and the staff who care for them. Down Home Ranch is very concerned about wildfire risk.

This is a story from co-founder Judy Horton.

Back in the early 90s we didn’t think much about fire here at the Ranch, until the day I headed up the trail to have lunch at the little farmhouse we had bought and moved adjacent to the Ranch.

Jerry was still working in Austin, so I spent most days alone working in the small trailer that had served as our home until just a few months before.

As I walked around the bend of Sandy Road I saw a large plume of smoke rising up from behind our house. As I got closer I saw the flames racing across the grassy areas under the tall trees in the pecan bottoms. It was still a ways off, but much too close for comfort, so I turned and ran as fast as I could back to the office to call the volunteer fire department and Jerry.

By the time Jerry came streaking in 40 minutes later, fire had engulfed a few acres of our pecan bottoms but fortunately was contained in short order. The early 90s had seen record rain, there was still water in the creek and the shrubs and trees were plump with moisture.

Still, we could see the yaupon holly exploding into fiery balls before being quickly consumed. We knew that luck was with us in those days. Unlike now.

There are dead and dying trees all over Down Home Ranch. The sentry oaks by the historical cemetery are gone after standing watch for decades. Everything is brown and tinder dry and the only green to be seen is around our wellfed pond.

Fortunately, we’ve been preparing for years of extreme drought, just like this one. In 2007, we began working with the Texas Forest Service on a project we call the Annual Texas Chainsaw Manicure.

One day each autumn, volunteers come out to the Ranch to help clear brush and open up wooded areas, decreasing the amount of “fuel” that wildfires need to grow. We’ll be holding the next one on October 15th, and if you want to come out and help, please let us know so we’ll barbecue enough brisket for everybody who comes.

Today, thanks to our regular “Manicures” we are an official Firewise community — one of only 42 in Texas. But reducing our risk doesn’t eliminate it.

Just a few weeks ago, on Labor Day, Sharon came rushing over the hill. “You should see the smoke coming up from the south! It’s awful! Come and look!”

We did, and saw huge billowing pillars of smoke rising up like thunderheads on the southern horizon from what was just the beginning of the Bastrop fires. The day before, as we’d driven into Austin for church, I’d said to Jerry, “ With these wind gusts we’re having, and as dry as we are, I hope and pray no wildfires get started.

He snapped back, “Don’t even say that!”

But they had, and we stood silently, watching the beginnings of what has become our state’s worst fire disaster ever, with more than 1,500 homes lost and more than 34,000 acres burned. Everyone on the staff has friends and relatives who lost their homes.

So we’re more than nervous, we’re worried sick. It could happen here in a heartbeat.

That’s why we’re dead earnest about this year’s Chainsaw Manicure. To be a success, we need to attract as many volunteers as possible to help us prevent this tragedy from taking the 340 acres that we call “home.” Please help protect our Ranchers from the heartbreaking losses suffered by so many of our neighbors.

Your hours spent at Down Home Ranch will never count for more.

For information on the Texas Chainsaw Manicure, go to www.downhomeranch.org

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