Sunday, November 23, 2003

Family thankful despite Derby fire devastation

Family thankful despite Derby fire devastation
Of The Gazette Staff

Clarice and Corky Hedrick have had a rough year. First Corky suffered a heart attack. Then their son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Finally, the Derby Mountain fire scorched all but 40 acres of their 5,000-acre ranch situated high atop the Bridger Creek drainage.

"We were really bitter at first," Clarice said this week. "But so many people came in here to help us. We're lucky. No one died and we're all OK."

There's no doubt the Derby Mountain fire will be the topic of conversation when the Hedricks gather at the table this Thanksgiving holiday. The couple is headed to Nebraska to spend the holiday with family. Clarice made sure to pack her album of photos taken during the height of the firestorm. And of course she's got tales to tell about the dramatic events.

The Hedricks' story begins on Aug. 22, the day the fire broke out. Situated just miles from its ignition point, Clarice said they were the first to report it. Little did they know that the fire would sweep across their place - and within 15 feet of their house - four times in the next eight days.

"We were in the eye of the fire," Clarice said. "The way I know that, I heard a meteorologist say that over the scanner."

Since the Hedricks were first in the line of fire, their place served as a magnet for the first wave of firefighters. Crews and trucks from Big Timber, Absarokee, Columbus, Reed Point, Park City and Red Lodge converged in their barnyard. Many camped there for four days as the fire made runs from nearly every direction.

"We never once thought it was going to hurt us, but we never knew if it was going to stop coming, either," Corky said.

"We can't say enough about the local firefighters," Clarice said. "They saved our necks."

In the wee hours of Aug. 30, the fire made its first charge for the Hendricks' place. Around 3 a.m. family and friends helped load horses and squealing pigs into trailers. Everyone who could drive headed off with a rig. That included the Hedricks' underage grandson. As the caravan fled the flames, a law officer stopped the teen at the wheel of the two-ton truck. But, when someone vouched that the youth had plenty of experience, "that cop turned around and said 'good luck' and let him go," Clarice said, smiling.

By morning, the Hedricks were told the fire had passed. They returned to find their home still standing but the fire threatening to make another run. That afternoon, the flames charged the house three times.

"That last time was the time it almost curled our hair," Clarice said. "But one fireman told me, 'Your land may burn, but your house won't. We won't let it.'"

Firefighters foamed the house twice. As the flames stormed back - Clarice estimates the orange tongues flared 150 feet into the sky - a plane appeared low on the horizon.

"If a plane hadn't come over and dropped retardant on us, we wouldn't have made it," she said. "We were in the yard and it came so low we could see the helmet of the guy dropping retardant."

In the end, the house was spared, as were the houses of their two daughters, Georgi Hamel and Ronis Yanzick. The Hamels live only a mile from the Hedricks. The Yanzicks live down along the Stillwater River, where the fire charred two dozen homes.

Although their house still stands, the Hedricks, who run a summer "dude" camp and a winter hunting camp, lost both. They also lost outbuildings, thousands of acres of pasture and 42 miles of fence.

"It's tough, because we'll have no income for a while," Clarice said. "In our lifetime, we'll never see the scenery again and that's what we sell - scenery. But we'll make it."

The Hedricks also lost hillside upon hillside of evergreen trees. For years, Clarice said, they invited the Absarokee 4-H and Future Farmers of America to cut Christmas trees to sell for their annual fundraisers.

"And it'll be the first time in 42 years we won't be giving trees to the churches in Absarokee," she said.

Clarice, however, is perhaps most heartbroken over the loss of their horses. They survived the fire - the horses knew enough to bunch up where the fire had already burned, she said - but with no pasture, the couple was forced to sell all but 17 of their string of 90.

"I pulled the curtains and turned on the TV that day," she said. "I didn't want to see them leave."

Today, scorched ridges ring the Hedricks' house. Some of the hayfields have begun to take on the sheen of new growth, but the Hedricks figure the sagebrush-covered acres will remain ashen for a decade.

"It's the first time in all our married life we've been in the black, so to say," Clarice said with a chuckle. "There are about 14 different colors of black."

The Hedricks can't ignore the losses that have changed their lives and robbed them of their livelihood. Yet they feel blessed by the overwhelming support that has come their way.

"We're not alone," Clarice said. "This has brought people closer together."

The Big Timber Ministries gave them a card for $100 in gas and neighbors and friends have donated hay - a semitrailer full came from a lady who lives on the Hi-Line.

"We do not have a clue who she is," Clarice said.

And the help keeps coming. Just a few weeks back, a group of Helena ministers showed up to build fence.

Calls of concern from across the country have also buoyed the couple

"It's a good feeling," Clarice said. "They care."

Nearly three months after the devastation, Thanksgiving has taken on new meaning. Corky is doing well and, following surgery, their son's brain tumor seems to have disappeared. As for the Derby Mountain fire, the Hedricks plan on giving extra thanks for the blessings that have come from the ashes.

"When there are three homes involved in one family - we've got a lot to be thankful for," Clarice said. "That man upstairs took care of us, too. Corky and Josh's health is good. What more could you ask?"