College sweethearts Melissa and Austin Lely knew they wanted to make a life together not just living off the land, but giving back to it. So after graduating from Chico State in 2012, they jumped at the chance to live in a small rental house and tend a plot in Glen Ellen, CA. By the second year, their “Grandpa’s Hill” garden grew into a one-acre farm plot. And in 2015, Bee-Well Farms was born.
The trial-and-error farmers grew fruits and vegetables, raised chickens, and added a few cattle into their eco-mix. But in October 2017, the Nuns Fire roared through the Sonoma Valley. Their rental house was gone, but their animals somehow survived. During weeks and months of recovery, the Lelys learned to rely on their local community for everything from a much-needed shower to a place to live.
Nearly two years after the fire, the young farmers are living on the adjacent Atwood Ranch and continuing to plan for their future. Melissa, joined by her husband Austin, recently sat in their open-air workshop and talked about their long recovery from wildfire.
A conversation with Melissa and Austin Lely
Q: Let's talk about the fire. Describe to me what that first day was like.
MELISSA: The night of the fire, we were woken up at 11:45 at night to a pounding on our door, and we were like, ‘What? Who the heck is this? What is happening?’ We answered it and it was our neighbor Tom, and he told us, ‘There's a fire coming our way, we all have to evacuate right now.’ We were like, ‘Okay, well, let's go see where it is, how much time we have.’ It was pitch dark out, and so we just threw on some more clothes, just in case.
We went to check on our cows right away, because they were in a pasture more on the side of the ranch where the fire was coming to first. We went out and we could see it burning on the next ranch over. As we were deciding what to do with the cows, a bunch of firefighters and police officers pulled onto the ranch and said, ‘You guys have to leave right now!’ And we're like, ‘What about our livestock?’ They said, ‘Leave them. You have to get out of here.’
So we rushed home. We were not prepared. We didn't have any sort of a plan. We didn't ever anticipate that anything like this would happen to us, never even crossed our minds. So we quickly grabbed some cash and a few business documents, my laptop and our dog, and left. We didn't really take much.
We went down to my husband’s parents’ house in Sonoma. They were under an evacuation warning, I guess, but they decided they were going to stay. We stayed with them and we just got to work soaking their house down, soaking their yard down. We dug a fire line all around the back of their house, because it butts up to a field that had a bunch of overgrown dry grass in it.
We tried to do what we could to save that place, and then we were trying to get a hold of Austin's brother, who's a firefighter. He lives out in Schellville, and he had just gotten off his shift, and so he was at home passed out, asleep – not answering, not answering. So we went out to his property and woke him up and told him what was going on. From their place, you could look three sides around you, you could see burning in the hills.
Everything was on fire and it felt like the Apocalypse or something. You would just hear these booms from all these propane tanks exploding, and see these bright green flashes from God knows what was blowing up. It was just this really eerie, terrifying feeling.
Q: There were multiple fires that broke out. Which one were you caught in?
MELISSA: It was the Nuns Fire. There's only one property between here and Nuns Canyon Road. Right up that road is where the Nuns Fire started, so it was right on top of us from the beginning. Between Beltane Ranch and Atwood Ranch is where it started. And this property kind of sweeps around the back of Atwood. So it's like the three ranches meet right there.
Within two hours it came through here and burned the houses down and everything. So it wasn't too long after we had left that everything was pretty much gone. We were trying to follow the news and everything, and all we were hearing was stuff about the Napa Fire. And that was kind of like, ‘Okay, well, what about Kenwood? What about Glen Ellen?’
We stayed up all night at my brother-in-law's place, just trying to make it fire-safe and soaking things down. But first thing as soon as the sun came up, we got back out here and told the people at the fire line, ‘Please, we have animals here. We're just right there on this ranch. Could we please see if they're still there?’
They let us through, and we went to the cows first, and they were all just in the middle of this field. You could tell where the fire had been and that they kind of had danced around it, and just found areas where the grass was like low to none to stand in. And they all were there. They all made it. We did the best we could. We have a portable corral that we just threw up and try to get them all in and we gave them hay and water. We had to borrow some water from the Atwood Ranch because all the wells, everything – there was no power, no water obviously. We were trying to figure out how to keep getting water and we had to come up with a plan quick.
We were going around in the community next door, and there was a house standing that had municipal water running. We got the permission from the owners and they said, ‘Take whatever you need of the water.’ We've got some 55-gallon drums and we put a hose thing on the bottom, and we were like, ‘Okay we can haul water, now we're good.’ We came to check on the rest of our animals. The chickens were fine. We close them in the coops at night and the coops are on a trailer, so they're couple of feet off the ground. The fire did go right under it, but there wasn't enough fuel for it to ignite the coop or anything. When we opened the door, we were expecting the worst, and then they all just came hopping out, like a normal day.
We gave them some of the water. We gave them some feed. We had brought a bunch of feed and stuff in with us when we came. So we got them fed, but they were definitely free range at that point. They were wandering all over, which is fine. At that point it was like, ‘Yes, go be chickens.’
Once we got them taken care of, we just drove around the whole community, looking for other abandoned animals that needed taking care of. We just were helping feed and water other chickens. We found a donkey on the loose. We found a goat – poor guy, his eyes were all singed and he definitely had some trauma and he was burned a little bit. I called Animal Services on that one. But for the most part, we were able to get animals contained and fed and watered.
We figured at that point, the fire was not coming back through. There wasn't anything left to burn. And so, once we were able to get the animals in a secure enough scenario – especially the cattle – we decided it was better to stay here and care for them than it would be to try to evacuate them to somewhere far away. So, we sheltered them in place and were able to get by with what we had.
We spent a couple of nights at his parents’ house, just going back and forth. We tried to come out really early, but it was getting hard to get past the evacuation line. The cops from out of town and everybody were just getting harder to work with. We decided after a couple days, we have to stay in this evacuation zone and do what we have to do to take care of everything. And so there were a few other people who had stayed as well, including the Atwoods next door.
Just being in the zone during that time when everyone was evacuated – you could really feel the community come together and helping each other out. There was a place in front of the fire station we would trade and swap supplies out. They had a little food station set up. Other people were helping out with livestock too, so we'd leave animal food and trade stuff around. We still had eggs being laid from the chickens, so we'd bring them down to the fire department for all the firefighters.
Everyone was helping each other. It was really, really nice to have the support from everybody. People – random strangers – offered for us to come to their house and shower or do our laundry because they had had a back-up generator. It just felt really nice to have that support.
Q: Did you have any idea how long the recovery was going to take?
MELISSA: No, and we're still recovering. It's just endless really, with the loss of facilities, and trying to come up with a new plan and then also having put all of our resources our money back into getting things back together. It all continues to be a struggle, but we feel like this is definitely something we are in it, we're not going to stop farming and we're going to do the best we can to push forward with what we have and make it work. Q: How long were you without water, here?
AUSTIN: We couldn't use anything on the ranch until about March, when the first pasture started being finished and the new well was in.
MELISSA: So October, November, December... Five months.
AUSTIN: We had animals that we sheltered in place. After we got them off here, we had to pull everything off of here, and we couldn't bring anything back until March… We didn't know what was going to happen with this farm. The Army Corp of Engineers hadn't come out. We had no idea what was going to be left after the clean-up, or if we were going to be able to stay here or if the (owner’s) family was just going to part with the place. So we had a lot of insecurities.
MELISSA: Everything was up in the air for a long time.
AUSTIN: There was no plan. And we definitely had to take on a lot of the responsibilities for the rebuild and the clean-up here.
MELISSA: The family wasn't going to put up money to replace fence lines and all of that. But it's like, well, we really can't have animals out here if there's no fences.
AUSTIN: If you don't have fences and you have this much land, then you're just creating a huge hazard. If you can't knock over all these grasses and keep these trees up, then this place becomes becomes dangerous to all the neighbors and everything. So we went for it.
MELISSA: So what happened was, we're friends with the Kunde family who has a winery down Highway 12. Some of them had stayed – instead of evacuating – at the winery. And they had offered for us to come over there and eat dinners and stuff, because they were meeting people to bring in food and everything. They let us shower on the crush pad over there.
AUSTIN: They have a backup generator with hot water.
MELISSA: That was really nice, because at one point it had been like eight days. I was in the same dirty clothes, I hadn't showered. Looked like a little scruff ball. So yeah, we're super thankful for them taking us in. Then they happened to have a home open on the property where they said we could stay. We definitely took them up on that, because we had to stay in the area, and we were like, ‘Oh, it's right down the road.’ There was a pasture right by the house. We were able to bring our cattle and our chickens over there. So that was really a saving grace.
AUSTIN: We would not be here without that opportunity.
MELISSA: Knowing your neighbors, having that community connection is just everything to us. There's no way we could still remain in the area, or be doing this, if it wasn't for that. So we were over there. They had power and water, so the animals were taken care of, and we were taken care of. Then it was just a slow process to get those things back over here so we could at least use the fields again to start planting, and get new fences in, and all that. Yeah, it's a long process. So we're still, like I said, kind of piecing things back together one by one.
Q: Now you're in a different home, right?
MELISSA: That was something the Kunde family offered just after the fire to help in the short-term. But on a long-term basis, the rent is not something that was affordable. And so we had this opportunity. The Atwood family came to us and asked if we would like to live in this cottage on the property and be farm managers over there, and help care-take the cottage. And so we were like, ‘Yeah, thank you.’ It's connected to this farm. So it was like another saving grace. How are we able to stay this close and still do this?
AUSTIN: When you're at the brink, it’s just the accumulation of everything, and you're like, ‘How? How? How? How?’ The stars open – you know what I mean? Everything aligns, and it's just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. We have to keep doing this.’
MELISSA: There was definitely that feeling of, ‘All of this is happening for a reason, and the reason is so we can stay and keep on doing this.’
Q: What about the community of other farmers, like CAFF? How did you find out that there were grants available?
MELISSA: We were familiar with CAFF. We hadn't done much with them before that. We went to some events here and there. But Evan (Wiig) reached out to us and said, ‘Hey we heard about what happened to you guys. We’ve been trying to raise funds to donate to people who are victims, and we'd like to give you guys a grant.’ That was just a blessing. And that money really helped us get things back together. We had to re-buy every little thing that you could think of to run a farm. It was just very, very expensive, even to just get the basic bare minimum, bare bones going again.
During the fire, there wasn't too much interaction we had with other local farms. But Quarryhill has the botanical nursery down the way. They didn't have power or water and we were able to haul water to them, because they have endangered species that were dying in their greenhouses. We were just like, ‘Let's go. Let's go! Fill it up again. Another round.’ So we helped them out. So but as far as other produce growers in the area, we didn't really know what was going on with them or how the extent of how people were affected.
AUSTIN: With CAFF all around, and the Farmer's Guild, once we were going again, they were huge with all the different programs that they offer – from linking farmers up with buyers and general support. It's not something we could do by ourselves. We need everyone in the community to help out. And CAFF was there along the whole way, even as much as sharing stories with one another at the meetings. Everybody had to go through it, so it was nice that they were able to bring all these farmers together and just help give direction to everybody here.
Q: What are your next steps?
AUSTIN: We’re starting to do consulting work. Because cash flow is a big deal, and in the winter time, we do have the animals and we do have some grazing up. But we work with the Beltane Ranch and help with their gardens. We’re starting to work with the Hamel Family Winery, and those are other opportunities where we can work on a little bit more of a knowledge-base instead of hard labor, because we do a lot of our own labor out here. So growing, keeping all this going, but helping other farms develop programs as well and wineries.
MELISSA: Beltane has a bed-and-breakfast and they do special events, weddings and stuff. They use pretty much their whole garden to supply those events.
AUSTIN: They have a little bit over a quarter-acre, and it gets put on the back burner during the year. So we just go in, implement program, implement successions, help with the greenhouse, help with starting them stuff over here when they need it. We work with the chef and get quantities locked down instead of over-producing or under-producing. We graze their ranch off as well for fuel reduction. The Hamel Family Winery is almost the same thing. They have a farm-to-table program that they offer to their guests that come to the winery. They also feed their staff twice a week, which is an amazing thing. They haven't been able to adequately produce for those needs with the diversity that they're looking for. So they reached out to us and asked if we'd help manage their garden.
Q: What are some of the lessons you learned from the fire? What are some of the things you're doing?
MELISSA: Know your neighbors. Know all of them. And know what resources everybody has. AUSTIN: There’s stuff that's coming up, like permitted burns. We went to a couple of seminars on them, but if you take the next three ranches in one year, we burn this ranch and everybody works together, and then the next year, we burn their ranch and the next year, and every three years, we can kind of keep the properties clean.
MELISSA: But it's so expensive to get the permit for any one land owner, that it makes sense, if we are all in this together, to all help each other be safe, and prevent wild fires, then we should do things like that – all chip in and protect each other.
AUSTIN: Insurance was a big thing we did not know. We were severely under-insured. And that was a huge, huge learning curve for us.
Q: Do you have a fire plan now?
AUSTIN: We do for the animals and for our general property.
MELISSA: For our house, we do. The (Atwood) ranch we live on has a whole team fire plan detailing where everybody's going to. We did a walk-through the other day with the whole team and found out, okay, here is where all of the fire hydrants are. Here's all the safety equipment. Here’s a timeline – if the fire is here, what to do at your place, where to evacuate to, where to meet people. What to do with your animals. The Atwoods stayed, sheltering in place, and they fought the fire off of their place. Knowing that, ‘Okay, we can do this, and we can do this as a team, and have a good plan.’ That's really huge.
AUSTIN: Preparedness also means clearing space around the wells, because if the wells go down, all the farm goes down, pretty much. Keeping all of the brush as low as possible and the tree sap, so clearing all the ladder fuels, using the animals to do so. Having backup water supplies for livestock and personal use. And having the ability to get the animals off. When we redesigned the pastures out here, deciding where the gates went, a lot of that was so flow the animals can go to the safe spot, as fast as possible. With the pre-existing fences and gates that were here, a lot of them didn’t connect.
MELISSA: You'd have to do a lot more moving than should be necessary, especially in an emergency scenario. So now we can just open a gate here and a gate there and they just go right into their place.
Q: What is your water plan? When PG&E cuts off electricity, that pretty much cuts off your water — right?
AUSTIN: Absolutely because the pumps need electricity to pump water from the wells.
MELISSA: The farm owners are in the process of getting a backup generator for the well.
AUSTIN: And then there's a secondary well over here. We tied it in after the fires so it backfills a two-inch line so that well and this well can run in the same lines to do whatever is needed. Having a backup generator for the main well and then the adequate amount of diesel to run it for these potential outages that are proactive outages.
MELISSA: There are several water storage tanks that are being put in, somewhat strategically, so they could be gravity fed, as well. AUSTIN: Yeah, those are for well actual failures. At that point, we've already failed if the well goes down.
Q: What has this taught you about climate change?
MELISSA: There’s an unpredictable future ahead, so being prepared is key. And then being flexible and working with it and then doing what we can to reduce our footprint, to use resources smarter.
AUSTIN: I mean, climate change and resources management are, to me, one of the same. You're getting climate change because you're doing all these production elements to make things that aren't necessary for a higher quality of life or standard of living. Managing your resources is as important as the actual effects of using all these resources and wasting them. Being very cautious or being aware of the things that we're purchasing – everything has a footprint behind it. It's going to get much worse. And the biggest thing is people are worried about the climate, which is the effect, but the cause is the way that we treat our resources.
Q: Does climate change make a difference on the farm?
AUSTIN: The reason we are farming is because of a lot of these things that we learned about in college, as far as climate change. We decided agriculture was one of the biggest problems and it's also the solution. So if you look from anything to auto-immune diseases or just humans in general, so many problems come from diet. And so many problems come from our relationship to nature. And agriculture is both of those things. It’s why we started farming.
MELISSA: And also for the health of the environment. We try to farm in a way where we're giving back to the earth, we're building soils, we're nurturing life instead of this ‘taking’ model.
AUSTIN: We’re making our own compost, using the animals to knock down the cover crops, and using animals to clean everything.
MELISSA: Planting flowers and insectaries and trying to make good pollinator habitats. And we still have a long way to go, but we're trying and getting better at it every year. But yeah, trying to enhance ecosystems versus just plant for our own benefit, of harvesting the crop and making a profit. We have a different motive altogether. Sure, we would love to make some money off of this and have a secure livelihood, but there is a much grander picture that is beyond just this profit-based motive.
Q: As we wind up our conversation, I wonder if there is a story, an anecdote, that each of you remembers from the fire.
MELISSA: Austin worked at Benziger Winery at the time of the fire and was doing this on the side. One of the things we did was to go to the winery – and everyone was evacuated and everything – but we moved all the large equipment into the parking lot where it'd be safe.
AUSTIN: It was like 19 pieces of equipment.
MELISSA: I had never driven a forklift or some of these pieces of equipment before, but I had driven our tractor and lawnmowers and stuff. So I was like, ‘Okay, just give me the run-down I'll do it.’ We're literally relaying, like sprinting from the parking lot to the crush pad, and bringing down another piece – like ‘Go, Go, Go, get it to safety.’
AUSTIN: We turned off all the propane tanks, turned on all the irrigation, just getting it ready for fire. We also got all of the back-up generators going and helped get that facility operating.
MELISSA: Just doing what we could to jump in and help out.
AUSTIN: One of my favorite stories was the tuna sandwiches. At that point we were like, ‘We have no idea where we're going to stay.’ So some of the firefighters came and moved a trailer out of a dangerous spot and they moved it to a safer spot over here on this side of the ranch. We didn’t really have anything. We just had tuna sandwiches – tuna and mayonnaise on white bread.
MELISSA: It was the first meal we had had after going really hard, working out in the heat in this nasty chemical smoke. We came into this trailer absolutely exhausted, just covered in soot. And the whole trailer had a bunch of ash and stuff in it.
AUSTIN: And we made these just amazing tuna on white bread sandwiches. We have this picture, and it's us just trying to smile but we’re exhausted. Absolutely exhausted. And we're just eating these tuna sandwiches like we're sitting down at the French Laundry.
MELISSA: It was such a simple little thing, but it just brought us so much joy just to have a sandwich in the midst of all of what was going on.
AUSTIN: There's a lot of different good stories. Everyone here around us, this whole community banded together as one.
MELISSA: That's the real story.
AUSTIN: Nothing was off-limits to anybody. If we have it, it's yours. If you have it, it's ours. And that was just a remarkable thing because we were all strangers at that point. The community was not that tight. And then the effect of that over the next couple of months and everybody becoming stronger. Now when we go into a restaurant, you take the time to say, ‘Hey, how is it going?’ There are a lot of good things that come out of it, and that's a difficult thing to say – a difficult thing to probably understand. But in the greater scheme of life, there's a heck of an amazing community and some amazing folks in this area.
MELISSA: We're happy to be able to continue and just very thankful that we have gotten the support to be able to keep doing this. I guess the message, like advice for future victims is definitely do the best you can to prepare and prevent and have connections to the community. Stay calm and have your plan. Then it's easier to take action instead of when it's on top of you and you're trying to figure it all out.
AUSTIN: And have the supplies you need. I mean, if you're on a ranch, have a chain saw accessible because for us, we had to cut trees every 30 feet to go anywhere on this ranch. When trees fall, chain it up, drag it out of the way. A chain and a chainsaw are some of the most important things.
MELISSA: And face masks.
AUSTIN: Yeah and face masks.
MELISSA: And insurance. Insurance. Just get it.
June 23, 2019