The lives of MacKenzie and Sean Krumhauer changed forever because of powerlines and high winds.
In December 2017, a pair of wires meeting each other caused a raging inferno in Ventura County, Calif., where the couple lived on a 2-acre flower farm.
The Thomas Fire, which burned for 40 days, destroyed much of their farmland and equipment there, accounting for a portion of the 281,893 acres it burned in total — including 1,063 structures and two fatalities. The couple lost a large storage container full of tools and equipment, a tractor and most of their perennial plants, MacKenzie Krumhauer said.
“It’s hard because you’re looking at basically a wasteland. You’re forced to kind of be like, ‘Now what?,’ ” MacKenzie, 28, recalled. “It’s so hard to not have the feeling of wanting to give up. It’s something you put your heart and soul into. So much sweat. So much money. To see it all gone within a week, essentially — it’s hard to come back from that emotionally.”
Now they’re emerging from yet another emotionally devastating event: the pandemic. But now they live in a new home in Yacolt, where they operate Thiselle Creek Farm and a farm stand. At Thiselle Creek Farm, passersby can enjoy locally sourced produce and products of all sorts, all out of a large grain bin that they converted into a shop. The couple bought the 19-acre farm, county property records show, for $372,000 in March 2018.
To the Krumhauers, relocating to the Pacific Northwest three years ago was an obvious choice since they did not want to leave the West Coast entirely.
Though, when asked where she moved from, MacKenzie paused, then acknowledged they’re one of the many California ex-pats in the Pacific Northwest, which some native residents openly loathe, often blaming them for rising housing costs and ever-changing landscapes into cityscapes.
“I know it’s like the bad C-word — California — where we both grew up,” MacKenzie said. “But we looked for, literally and figuratively, greener pastures.”
Although they were aided with a fundraiser set up by friends and family, the couple still endured many obstacles in their relocation. They bought two large grain bins at an auction in Canada, Sean said, just before the pandemic, but then they couldn’t get them because of a COVID-19-related border closure. They found two more in South Dakota, ultimately taking a big road trip to retrieve them — but experienced car troubles on the way back.
“There are moments we didn’t think it would work out,” Sean said. “We contemplated leaving the bins on the side of the highway. But it was all worth it.”
The big grain silos can now be seen from the road on their new pasture near “what we call the main drag,” into the still-rural community of Yacolt, MacKenzie said, referring to Northeast Railroad Avenue. They transported about 100 globe thistle plants that they were able to salvage from the burned farm. The name of their new land is a nod to the spiky-looking purple plant.
“We dug them up, potted them and stuck them in a U-Haul to bring up here,” MacKenzie said. “It’s an homage to what happened there and what we were able to salvage and replant here.”
The Thiselle Creek Farm’s farm stand officially opened May 1, after breaking ground just over a year ago.
“The doors are open — people are coming through. It’s so cool to see it in its real form, instead of what we talked about every day,” MacKenzie said. Inside the grain bin shop are products from the farm, and elsewhere, including candles, honey “from a family in Hockinson and different kinds of Washington- and Oregon-made products like jams and jellies.”
Beyond the farm stand, the couple, who now are raising a 1-year-old with another child on the way, do “a little bit of everything.”
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They tend to pigs, sheep and chickens, for instance, as well as a “small perennial crop of peonies” and vegetables.
“People think farming is a monoculture; a singular thing. They think, farming — oh, a pig farmer or a corn farmer,” Sean Krumhauer said. “But as land gets more expensive and parcels get smaller, you have to think about diversifying. It’s multifaceted. A farmer is a bookkeeper. A farmer is an accountant. You have to be able to change your tractor tire rather than go to Les Schwab and pay 100 bucks. It all adds up to so much.”
Now that the pandemic is easing, the couple have stars in their eyes about all sorts of other ventures — including hopes to lead classes and workshops to teach others about different aspects of farming. But the threat of a wildfire taking it all away again will forever be in the back of their minds. They experienced smoked-filled skies from their new home in 2020.
“We were having this mild PTSD — ‘Oh my god. We’re going to have to move to Idaho now when everything’s gone’; full-on starting the whole thing over,” MacKenzie said. But, she said they have “fallen in love” with not only their new land, but Yacolt and Clark County. And they are looking at wildfires with a different philosophy.
“We are low-key expecting the future up here to look a little similar to what the earlier years in California were like,” MacKenzie said. She said they must shift from taking wildfires so personally and, instead, try to work more in tandem with the environment.
“We can learn from other mistakes to make it so we’re working in symbiosis with the environment rather than pushing back, like, ‘Don’t you be on fire!,’ ” she said with a laugh. “We talk a lot about what we can do with our own little bit of power here, the power of our little, tiny votes; what we can do to make it so hopefully our kid doesn’t have to prepare for starting over.”