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California ranchers and agencies are working to combat wildfires in the state. Pictured here, the August Complex Fire in the Mendocino National Forest. The fires within the complex ignited Aug. 16 and as of Nov. 4 had burned over 1 million acres and was 93 percent contained.

This year has seen the worst wildfires in California, burning over 4 million acres and consuming large grazing acreage on private and public lands. While in the past, Native Americans would set prescribed burns as a fire-management tool, our policy of fire suppression combined with other environmental factors has made California’s vegetation much denser than the fire-adapted ecosystem can handle.

While prescribed burns are being revisited, the landscapes’ diversity combined with the growing population into the rural landscape makes the premise difficult. Several hurdles need to be addressed, and getting all stakeholders together is the first step.

Mark Lacey, president of the California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), told Ag Alert moving forward, what ranchers need is for “state and federal governments to stop just blaming climate change for everything and start coming together with land resource managers and livestock people to figure out how we’re going to change the dynamic of letting the state burn up every year.”

Dan Macon, livestock and natural resources advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), had the idea of what the ranching community can do to bring these agencies together to reduce wildfires’ threat and respond to fires in the community, through the formation of a fire-safe council.

On Oct. 28, a scoping meeting was held to explore the possibility of forming such a council with stakeholders to discuss commercial ranchers’ specific needs and concerns regarding wildfire preparation, response, and recovery.

“I think there are the pre-fire, during the fire and post-fire challenges that all of us grapple with on a commercial basis in terms of thinking where we have the equipment, the assets and the knowledge of where we can do some things to manage the fire threat,” said Macon.

While there are fire councils in the state that address the needs of residential neighborhoods, there are challenges in the livestock community that are unique. These include getting access to animals to provide water and feed, especially on leased land when you do not have identification that shows you live in the area, and getting the animals out when you have several semi loads of animals. Ranchers also have the perspective with on-the-ground knowledge of the landscape and sometimes the equipment that could aid firefighters in the blaze’s initial response.

Prescribed fire priorities

Tony Toso, first vice president of CCA, stated in the scoping meeting there are two prescribed fire-related priorities for CCA to help mitigate wildfire risk.

First, increase and expand prescribed burns on state and private lands and advocate with Cal Fire to have the ability to be able to work with the air pollution control districts to have prescribed burns. Toso indicated CCA would push for Cal Fire to have the ability to obtain a variance in circumstances where local air quality management districts “veto” prescribed burns due to air quality concerns. This could be done by establishing California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exemptions for prescribed burns.

Second, establish liability protections and/or an “insurance pool” for burn bosses on private lands. Members of the CCA subcommittee have helped established a burn boss certification program with Cal Fire and will start the first burn boss class in February.

One other area Toso indicated the subcommittee wants to focus on is increasing the amount of grazing on private and state lands, including previously un-grazed lands. This could be achieved by streamlining the CEQA and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes to get cattle onto the lands and working with the Department of General Services to get long-term grazing leases in place rather than short-term agreements, which would keep grazing on the lands and fit better into a rancher’s business plans.

Toso pointed out in his presentation the subcommittee would like to see the state work toward grant funding for infrastructure development on state lands such as fences, water development and corrals, for example, to facilitate better grazing management to help work toward fire risk mitigation.

Additionally, replanting and grazing after the fires on public lands is also a concern. Currently, on federal land, there is a two-year moratorium on grazing, but that premise is being challenged by UCCE. CCA would like to prioritize grazing as a post-fire maintenance solution to vegetation management on previously burned state lands.

“We owe it to ourselves and communities to utilize a resource like cattle to get out there and help manage [grazing] post-fire,” said Toso.

Lastly, CCA is also working on an “Ag Pass” program enabling ranchers the ability to get access to their properties during road closures.

RFPAs

As guidance to what other states are doing for wildfire mitigation, Dr. Amanda Stasiewicz, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at San Jose State University, talked about her work and research in Idaho and Oregon with Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPA).

While RFPAs are more focused on suppression than prescribed burns, they operate as partnerships between private landowners and government agencies to address the ranching community’s needs.

Together they create a non-governmental organization where ranchers can get an Ag Pass, S-130 firefighting training, and liability insurance. Each RFPA receives $2,500 in assistance, which covers training, personal protective equipment and radios. The rest is funded through dues from ranchers to cover wear and tear on their vehicles and equipment they use in firefighting suppression efforts.

Some of the benefits of RFPAs are they complement the resources that the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies have to respond to fires, therefore, keeping fires smaller. Another advantage is having ranchers with knowledge of the terrain who can guide responders to the correct location.

As with California, where it is more of an urban/wildland interface, RMPAs work with rural fire departments for mutual aid agreements and memorandums of understanding for fire response. 

While there was some apprehension from some participants in the scoping meeting that RFPAs may work in other states but not in California, Paulette Swallow, sustainable agriculture coordinator for UCCE Sonoma-Marin County, stated, “I think it’s worth trying to have some sort of discussion because we really need to do something. It would make so much sense, given the resources that our community does have. Every other ranch you go to, there is equipment sitting there that could be used. Though it does sound challenging what they’re doing in Idaho, it also sounds like it could potentially work.”

Other agenda items

Swallow, along with Stephanie Larson, UCCE rangeland advisor, has been working on access issues to closed areas with Cal Fire and the Sheriff’s Department. The team has sent out surveys to producers and ranchers in the area for information on what type of equipment they may have on their property, a map of access points, and workers’ names and addresses for future Ag Pass programs. Swallow noted between the fires of 2017 and 2019, the departments were able to get a program somewhat in place for access to lands in 24 hours. However, she noted that the time period could be improved with the survey and aid first responders.

Dash Weidhofer, ranch manager for Audubon’s Bobcat Ranch in Yolo County, stated he is coordinating with Cal Fire on a long-term vegetation management plan (VMP).

While it has worked on the ranch, Weidhofer posed the question of whether Cal Fire could work with other agencies and establish a single VMP across different properties.

While the plan is feasible, Rob Bartsch, battalion chief for Cal Fire, noted a problem with California’s landscape with interspersing of houses with ranches. As the population grows, what were once large ranches are being subdivided into smaller ranchettes. Homeowners are less compliant to clear brush or willing to have livestock or horses come onto the property to graze, or when grazing is allowed, the conditions are less than optimum.

Lastly, the group also discussed the possibility of stockpiles of hay across California for access in the early stages of fire evacuations. It would be advantageous to have a program that finances itself with government reimbursement in the preliminary stage, and the hay could be sold at the end of the season. A concern would be trucking costs and other expenses associated with the program.

The group plans a workshop or conference to provide additional education about a variety of topics, including RFPAs, Ag Pass programs, and VMPs after the first of the year. If you would like more information about the Fire Safe Council or what was discussed at the scoping meeting, you can contact Dan Macon at dmacon@ucanr.edu. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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