WATERTON – It took 30 years to build and develop the Rocking Heart Ranch. Then, on Sept. 11, 2017, it was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes.
As fire crews battled the Kenow wildfire that devastated Waterton Lakes National Park last year, a second fire hit the neighbouring horse ranch – wiping out the Garner family home, barn, riding arena, feed yard and fences. According to Marc Garner, who lives near Lethbridge, his parents only had 20 minutes to evacuate as the fire raced towards their home.
But this isn’t a story about the end of the ranch, instead, it’s a look at a new beginning.
The first bright spot was clear right away, as noted by Garner the day after the blaze, his parents escaped unharmed and all of their horses not only survived but avoided injury as well.
Then came the rebuild.
“I think the biggest challenge is, first of all, understanding that there is a grieving process that happens with this,” said Melody Garner-Skiba, while sitting down with Lethbridge News Now nearly 10 months after the fire. “Even when you have got really strong determination there will be set-backs, there will be times that you just can't get everything done that you want to do.
“We've had to come to the realization that it took us 30 years to build the ranch, we can't rebuild it in a year.”
The first priority for the family was to make sure their herd of about 100 horses were taken care of. That meant rebuilding fences and corrals became a major project, as virtually all of them were lost. As of today, they have managed to replace about 95-per cent on their fences.
With the focus being on the animals, that’s meant her parents have yet to fully sort out their living arrangements.
“My dad moved back to the ranch six months after the fire in an apartment in the shop, so that's been great,” explained Garner-Skiba. “It was really important to get him back on the ranch for his state of mind.” She added that her mother has been living part-time on the ranch as well.
When asked what that willingness to put their horses first says about her family, she took a brief moment, then smiled warmly as she talked about her family.
“I think that's just what farmers and ranchers do… [they] always put their animals first, it is in our DNA, it is what we do. It's nothing special, it just is what it is.”
She quickly noted that their next major project is permanent housing for her parents, along with rebuilding the barn and several sheds on the property.
As they have moved through the rebuilding effort, Garner-Skiba noted that they have received an outpouring of support and assistance from the community and have been working with the province. She did express some frustration, however, saying they’re not seeing any level of help from the federal government.
“It's been a little bit disheartening in the fact that we have not seen a response from the federal government yet. We have sent letters requesting meetings, we have asked for support and we have received nothing, not even communication back,” she stated.
“I've received no response from the Minister of Agriculture or the Minister of Environment and Parks,” Garner-Skiba continued. “So, we are set to do another round of letters here and request a conversation, or even a response, on how are they planning on helping the ranches that they burned out because they did not take action when they needed to.”
For the moment she says they will continue to try to make contact on their own, but if they don’t get a response soon, they may ask the community to help them make some noise to get federal attention.
Despite the daunting challenges, Garner-Skiba pointed out that there have been some significant positives from the last year.
“Everybody says there's always a silver lining, and sometimes it's hard to believe there's a silver lining, but there truly is,” said Garner-Skiba. “From a family perspective, it's forced us to have some good conversations around succession, around what does long term for Rocking Heart Ranch look like.
“When something just wipes everything out, you have a blank slate,” she added. “So, where before we maybe would have added corrals or a barn here or there, we were hesitant to do so because we already had infrastructure. Now, it's a blank slate. We've redesigned the whole ranch, there's nothing going back where it was. We've taken what we've learned over the past 30 years and applied it to this new set-up, and it's going to be even better.”
As the interview came to an end, Garner-Skiba stressed how thankful her family is for the community support they have received. She also noted that she hopes their experience can help others in the future.
“Plan for these things. Have an emergency plan. If you have a farm or ranch, even at home, just make sure you've got an emergency plan so that you can deal with this if this happens so that everybody can stay safe.”
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