Since 2014, Carol and Jim Ptak have lived a peaceful life on Gryphon Ranch with their horses and highland cattle, running a grass-fed beef operation that the two of them could handle on their own.
“It was a high quality of life,” says Carol Ptak. “It’s why we moved to Arizona.”
In a thunderclap, all that changed.
Made it through the fire
“If anyone would have told me on June 13th that the fire would be the easy part, I would have said ‘You’re nuts!’”
Gryphon Ranch got the GO call at 5:38 a.m. on June 14. Carol and Jim Ptak were packed – two suitcases by the door, documents, cash, firearms, and a trailer stacked with hay hitched to Jim’s truck.
“We contacted our ranching buddies to bring trailers,” Carol says. “We have 50 head of cattle and three horses.”
They expected their friends around 7:00 a.m., but by 7:25, the only one to arrive at Gryphon Ranch was Todd Abel from Central Arizona Fire. At that point, Highway 77 is engulfed in flames. The trailers have been turned back.
“We had to leave all the cattle and the horses,” Carol says. “We high-tailed it out of there with a wall of flames coming over the hill.”
The fire burns through the night at great intensity. Manzanita, mesquite, scrubby pinion pines go up in flames. A motor home blows up. Winds shift. The fire blows through the primary line north of the Ptaks “as if it didn’t exist.” Ranch Creek Road is devastated from the south.
The Tucson 1 DOC fire crew watches over their ranch, which is positioned between the two fires. The fire swings and rages, and before it’s finished, all of the ranches around and 70% of Gryphon Ranch have burned. It stops 100 feet from the pasture where they left their highland cattle.
Two days later, Jim and Carol return to Gryphon Ranch. They are greeted by their horses and the sight of the only piece of green left in the area. Their house and barn are standing. All their animals are there.
“We feel like the luckiest people on the face of the planet,” says Carol. “Hallelujah, right?”
Then came the floods
July 3. It rains hard. Water slips off burnt peaks and comes barreling down the canyons of Ice House, Six Shooter, and El Capitan. The Ptaks wake up in their bright blue house to find the last of their green space covered in black mud.
Two of the buildings saved by the firemen are now twisted around trees. There are tangles of fence and water lines littered in random places and a lot more rocks in the lower parts.
“We flooded 18 times before Miami got hit on July 29th,” Carol recounts.
First they yanked 48-inch culverts from the crossings. A thousand feet of water lines were ripped up and replaced, the corral was repaired (six times), and help was hired to fix the perimeter fence. Jim pulled leg ligaments in the effort and landed in the hospital.
“Since the flood, it’s been 12- to 15-hour days of real physical work,” says Jim Ptak, “and when you’re 66, that gets old.”
He lets out a good-natured laugh, but he means it. When the flooded barn threatened their feed, Carol asked the 4H leaders for help. That night, she and Jim prayed.
“Nothing happens but for the will of God,” says Jim, grateful for his faith. “If you truly believe there’s a purpose, it helps you get through the day.”
The next morning their prayers are answered. Two truckloads of 4H kids arrive to save the hay. A squeegee appears just in time. Together they get the barn mucked out. A hard day’s work. Everyone is exhausted. But the hay is still outside. Then two more trucks arrive.
“Fresh kids!” Carol exclaims.
They stack all of the hay back in the barn. It rains again that night.
The grown-ups get involved
“The priority is getting the roads passable and keeping them that way,” says Supervisor Woody Cline of District 3.
It’s August 26, more than a week since the last rain, and Gryphon Ranch is humming with heavy equipment. Brent Cline, Roads Manager with Gila County’s Public Works Department, is there with a tractor. J.L. Dixon is clearing culverts, making roads passable, and building berms. They work feverishly. Thunder rumbles.
A week later, the debris is gone and they’ve started final grading. The pens are being rebuilt, and the Ptaks are working towards getting the ranch operational. Thousands of dollars have gone into the disaster and recovery efforts.
“This is our life now,” says Carol. “Earthwork.”
County people have been “absolutely incredible,” Carol says. “Still, our lifestyle has been destroyed, and our life savings are going with it.”
On June 18, Governor Ducey signed a $100 million bipartisan relief package. The funding is to support firefighting efforts, ensure Arizona communities have the resources needed for post-fire disasters such as flooding and reduce the risk of future wildfires.
Of the $100 million, $10 million is dedicated to local aid, including payments to local contractors for clean-up, removal of debris, demolition directly attributable to fire or flooding, and waivers for the dumpster, landfill, and debris/sediment haul-off fees.
This state money is being distributed through the Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM) in local collaboration with public works departments and Gila County Emergency Manager Carl Melford. Property owners can call (928) 910-4009 during business hours or fill out a form online at the Gila County website.
As Carol Ptak awaits a response to her online application for the state flood recovery aid, she is strident about the need for a federal response – accountability for choices that intensified the fire, and possibly the actions that sparked it. The National Guard confirmed they were training in the area the day the Telegraph Fire started.
“They ordered those pilots to that training exercise when there were severe fire restrictions and high winds, and they’re out there with heat flares,” says Carol, incredulously. “And they’re still out there!”
“Our issues today with the flooding are not going away,” says Woody Cline. “There will be winter, spring, and next summer.”
A crust of baked clay forms when the land burns with such intensity, he explains. It needs to be broken up so water can seep into the ground and plants can seed.
“Put the cattle on the burn,” says Carol Ptak. “Feed them native hay and let the cattle go to work. Their feet will break up the crust. They eat, they poop, they reestablish the topsoil. We could reduce the restoration time by half and reduce the flooding in the town.”
Adam Bromley, Globe District Ranger, says that while the vegetation burn was intense, the soil burn was primarily moderate, and few areas of the Telegraph Fire produced this hard layer.
“The best available science says that in these areas, especially after a long drought, it’s best for long-term vegetation production to keep cattle off the burn,” he says. “It’s largely about forage per acre. We need two growing seasons.”
Bromley says the U.S. Forest Service utilizes peer-reviewed data from a wide variety of resources and often works in partnership with the University of Arizona to make their decisions. As private landowners, the Ptaks are not subject to federal forest regulations. They have their cattle back on the burn and have offered their ranch as a research site for the University of Arizona.
Carol and Jim bought 1,000 acres in El Capitan, southeast of Globe, seven years ago. But before Arizona was a state, a stagecoach route passed through the terrain, according to Carol. She points out the foundation of the original homestead. An old stone slaughterhouse, once filled with ice from Ice House Canyon, stands not far from the corral where Blacky, a black Angus, finishes off the last of a 1,500-pound bale. He’s been sold. He’ll go in the fall.
“We’re going to do our best to meet customer orders through October, and then we’re shutting down the retail operation,” says Carol, “which will be tough on the revenue side of things.”
In the depths of the devastation, Carol says they’d sell “in a heartbeat,” but Jim doesn’t think that’ll happen without roads and basic infrastructure. The Ptaks have over a decade of breeding in their herd and won’t de-stock, so perhaps they’ll be back in business before too long.
“Both Carol and I enjoy the animals. We enjoy our customers. We enjoy the relationships we have with our butcher and the people we buy animals from. We enjoy all that. So it would be hard to walk away,” Jim says.
Right now the biggest loss they’ve suffered is the sense of peace one gets living in the country. Sitting around the crackle of a campfire, and the thrill of a thunderstorm.
“Those were two of my favorite things,” says Carol, “and both of those things right now send me into a terror.”
This month we bring you two feature stories on how the flooding has impacted two local ranch operations. The impacts of the fire in June and flooding throughout July and August have been intense, and widespread, spanning over 200 acres from Superior to the west of us and San Carlos Apache Reservation to the east. The Gryphon Ranch owned by the Ptaks is located just off Hwy 77 as you head towards Tucson, and the Hale homestead is east of Miami near the turn-off to Pinto Valley Mine.
A traveler, Patti Daley came to Globe in 2016 to face the heat, follow love, and find desert treasure. She writes in many formats and records travel scraps and other musings at daleywriting.com.