When the Dixie Fire started on July 13, Todd Swickard of Five Dot Ranch near Susanville, CA, did not think much about the fire since it started on the west side of the Plumas National Forest near Feather River Canyon, some 40 miles away.
“I never dreamed it would make it this far,” Swickard, co-owner of the ranch, told WLJ. “It kept burning and burning, and we are on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. The fire burned over the mountain. Actually, this is one of the first times fire has burned all the way from the west side, clear over the top to the east side. So, it’s kind of crazy.”
Five Dot Ranch dates back to 1852 in the Santa Clara Valley. Todd’s father, Jack, moved the operation to its current location in 1959 with 200 Hereford cattle. Today, the ranch runs a spring-calving operation on several U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management grazing permits in the Plumas National Forest and surrounding areas. The family also has a fall-calving operation in southern Napa Valley and Solano County, where they also operate Milestone Butchery at the Oxbow Market in downtown Napa.
The Dixie Fire has grown to be California’s second largest wildfire, consuming over 927,000 acres. It was 59 percent contained as of Sept. 9. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the fire has destroyed 688 homes and 139 commercial structures, including the town of Greenville.
Swickard stated the fire burned through most of his permits in the Plumas National Forest, but a few pastures were not affected.
“Unfortunately, this area burned far worse than the allotments we checked last week, and we are saddened to see most of our remaining feed and fence lines turned to ash,” the ranch wrote on Instagram. “Already, we have been faced with drastic feed shortages due to the drought, so the loss of this additional feed is utterly heartbreaking.”
Swickard said he has been able to move 250 to 350 head out of the Lake Davis area, and they are in the process of getting all of the herd out of the forest.
“The cattle in our Lake Davis/Grizzly permit need to be moved after the fire Tuesday [August 31] night devastated the area,” the ranch posted on Facebook. “Last night, the fire burnt back onto our ‘Hossulcus’ permit. This was the last place with remaining feed for the cattle to wait out the fire.
“Now, these cattle will need to be removed immediately. Since we will need to build temporary corrals and bring in semitrucks to haul the cattle, we will have to coordinate with all the different agencies to figure out where and when this can happen. Now that the cattle will be coming home two months early, we need to secure enough hay to feed them as well.”
Swickard said he didn’t lose any cattle to the fires that he knows of.
“[It] got pretty close to them, and they huddled down into some green spots by the riparian areas,” said Swickard. “We’re fortunate they got into those areas and it burned around them, and you would go up there the next morning and they’re just laying there looking as happy as can be. We were worried they would panic and run off into the trees somewhere, and they would be trapped and have nowhere to run.”
Swickard said his neighbors have been helping, with everyone sharing corrals and assisting when needed. Swickard remarked there is a shortage of hay, and prices have skyrocketed, with grain hay prices jumping from $80-100 a ton last year to $200-250 a ton this year.
Because the fire was in Plumas County, Swickard stated the Ag Pass program was not available, but he was able to obtain a pass from USFS to begin moving the cattle out.
“Honestly, everyone’s been really cooperative this year,” Swickard said. “We kind of go in sometimes from the Lassen County side and on the Plumas County side, and everyone’s been good to work with, and some of them know us and as long as we have a copy of that forest service pass on our phones, it’s worked pretty well.”
There has been discussion regarding the Ag Pass program in both Plumas and Lassen counties, although the program has not been implemented yet. Scott Oneto, farm adviser for University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) in El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, told WLJ there has been interest from ranchers to develop an Ag Pass program.
“Although we currently don’t have a livestock adviser, my plan is to try and get something going with our clientele in the coming year,” Oneto stated in an email.
JoLynn Miller, UCCE Multi-County Partnership director for Central Sierra, told WLJ they hope to have a livestock adviser soon “but don’t know what the timeline looks like for that.”
Swickard said there “have been sleepless days and nights,” and the next step is worrying about feed with the drought. He said the ranch has downsized its operation, including his labor force.
Swickard said both the fire and drought would reduce his income for the next few years.
“We will definitely be a smaller operation because the permits will need to be rested for two to three years to allow the grasses to reseed and try to recover,” Swickard said. “So, we’ll probably be off those permits for at least a year, up to three years, to do the proper management on the ground and take care of it.”
Swickard said that this was “probably the first smoke-free day [Sept. 8]” they had in a while with fire containment in the area. A video posted on Facebook on Sept. 4 showed hotspots and smoke surrounding the valley. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor