Many fires blazed across the West last summer, with record numbers of burned acres and cattle producers impacted—with grazing acres lost, fences destroyed, and cattle losses. In California some of the worst losses occurred when fires started earlier than usual, burning rangelands while cattle were still out there, with no way to get them home.
Mark Lacey, California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) president, said nearly every state from Colorado westward had major fires. Even ranchers who didn’t lose pasture or cattle were affected; smoke from nearby fires impacted performance and health of the cattle. “This year, more producers were impacted than in almost any previous year,” said Lacey.
“Everywhere the fires burned, grazing lands were affected. For instance, along Highways 5 and 152, at least half of one producer’s feed was burned, along with 34 miles of perimeter fence and 100 miles of total fencing,” said Lacey.
Dr. David Daley, professor emeritus at California State University-Chico and past president of CCA, said many ranchers lost forage from burned rangeland as well as cattle. “We’ve had many fires in the past, but I don’t remember any time we’ve lost this many cattle,” he said. On his own U.S. Forest Service allotment that burned in the Bear Fire, he lost three-quarters of the cattle he turned out.
“These fires go through so quickly and burn so hot that cattle don’t have a chance. There is so much fuel load today. Historically, when a fire went through an area, cattle could usually get out of the way and survive, but we aren’t seeing that this year,” he said.
Lightning storms came early, starting fires in July, and many annual grasslands burned early. Most of the serious fires in previous years have been later (October-November and into December), but this year came during grazing season.
“The last figures I saw, we’ve burned over 4 million acres in California. Some people don’t think fires have much impact if they’re not near a town. Urban folks don’t realize the impacts on agriculture,” he explained.
“I don’t know if there are ways to manage around this situation; I think we are more than 50 years too late and it’s hard to play catchup.” When people lose their lives and homes, and entire towns burn, however, it gets more attention.
“I don’t think they were callous before; they didn’t understand what was going on, and now they are beginning to. This is the message I’ve been trying to convey—that this isn’t just about me losing cows or my ranch’s value; this is about you potentially losing your home or your life. We need to work on this problem together,” said Daley.
California’s population has grown, and people have moved into rural areas and built homes in forested regions. There are many small communities and subdivisions in areas more vulnerable to fire.
Bob Alverts of Science and Management Consulting of Tigard, OR, and part-time faculty member of the University of Nevada, Reno, College of Agriculture, said western Oregon lost a lot of their forests this year. “More than 15 million board-feet of timber got burned. That’s enough to build a million houses,” he said.
Help for ranchers
There have been some relief efforts by cattlemen in neighboring states to send hay to livestock that lost feed, but getting assistance for ranchers who lost property and livestock isn’t simple. Most ranchers don’t want to rely on anyone else; they want to be self-sufficient. “But in many cases, including my own, we’ll probably need help,” said Daley. “I’ve explored various programs to see which ones might fit. These losses are financially devastating because it’s hard to figure out how you are going to pay your bills, replace lost cattle, and keep going,” he said.
“The Farm Service Agency (FSA) has been good about trying to help, but trying to check the boxes on application forms is difficult because it doesn’t always fit. Where is your list of which cows burned? How do you fill that out if you can’t find those cows? Trying to get third-party verification is also difficult. There are 200 head of our cattle that we still haven’t found and probably never will,” said Daley.
There is aid available for some ranchers. After California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared an emergency and asked the federal government to declare the fires a disaster, it paved the way for USDA programs to become available, such as the livestock indemnity program. “This helped with some of the livestock mortalities, but replacing fences will be a challenge,” Lacey said.
“CCA urged FSA to issue a blanket exemption so ranchers could start rebuilding fences prior to gaining approval for projects, and retroactively approve perimeter fencing so they could keep cattle where they belong. In many areas, burned and injured cattle were drifting onto the wrong areas,” he explained.
Some programs will be available, but one of the problems is inaccuracies with the U.S. Drought Monitor, which most feed and drought assistance programs are based on. “They only listed a small portion of California as D3 (extreme drought) on the Drought Monitor, even though many areas have been dry all year,” said Lacey.
The Drought Monitor does not reflect on-the-ground conditions. “We encouraged producers to send in reports and photos, to show that on-the-ground conditions are different from the climatic conditions they use as criteria.”
If those areas had been accurately listed as D3, the livestock forage program would have kicked in—some producers would have had an opportunity to get assistance earlier. “The Drought Monitor was still calling most of California D2 (severe drought) or D1 (moderate drought) and this isn’t realistic. If USDA’s programs are going to have any value, the Drought Monitor needs to be more reflective of what agriculture conditions actually are, instead of the broad set of criteria they are using,” he said.
“To get to D3 there has to be municipal water rationing, irrigation shut-offs, ski resorts unable to open, etc. If FSA and USDA use the Drought Monitor to determine their ag programs, they need it to be responsive to grazing conditions,” Lacey said.
Many people blame climate change for the increased number and intensity of fires, but even if we are going through a drier period, it’s not a simple issue. Mismanagement of these lands has also played a role, and smoke from fires is a much greater pollutant of producing greenhouse gases than humans alone could ever cause.
“I don’t like to talk about climate change; arguing about this topic wastes time,” said Daley. “I do know things are different than they were 50 years ago and I don’t know if it’s a drier period, or due to all the smoke or man-made pollution; there are probably many factors. I don’t want to argue about what it is or not; I’d rather work on solutions,” said Daley.
Lacey said politicians are indoctrinating school kids and the public. “If the government keeps blaming everything on climate change, that’s just an excuse and not a solution. If this type of weather is the new norm, we need to figure out how to adjust.” We need to do more logging, grazing and fuels management so we won’t be hit every year by catastrophic fires, according to Lacey.
“People should quit making excuses and work on what we need to do to address the problems. What we’re doing now is not working. We need to take proactive steps to manage whatever conditions we are faced with. We can’t keep building houses farther out into the hills and brush, up against the forests, and then say that if fires burn them up it’s because of climate change,” said Lacey.
Alverts said the issue is actually a matter of too much fuel. Studies in the Sierra Nevada on fuel densities indicate that today there is five times as much fuel as there was a century ago. “This is the case throughout the western conifer and mixed conifer forests and many shrub and grassland communities where there’s excess forage. The notion that we can leave it alone and live happily ever after is a fairytale,” he said.
To reduce fire danger we must harvest more timber and manage shrub/grassland rangelands with more grazing and more frequency. “We need to reduce fine fuels every year. On the forests we have a broader window, sometimes up to five decades on the lower productive forests and only about a decade on the higher site forests; we’ve got to get in there and remove fuels,” said Alverts.
Benefits of grazing
Cattle grazing has many benefits—to reduce fuel loads and minimize risk for catastrophic fires. “Grazing always helps the range, not only to help prevent wildfires; it improves health of the plants and biodiversity, and many other ways most people don’t understand,” said Daley.
“An Extension researcher at the University of California, Devi Rau, has data that shows how much fuel load is reduced by cattle grazing, and published her work this summer—a statewide look at how much fuel was removed by cattle,” he said. Her work is important because it puts real numbers to the issue. Ranchers know grazing helps, but for the public to understand, it needs to be to be quantified with research.
“The Bureau of Land Management has been talking about giving more flexibility to producers, before and after fires, but after our recent election this may change,” Lacey said. Many people don’t recognize grazing as a valid tool to help manage rangelands.
Much of California is owned by the state. There’s no grazing allowed in parks, and they don’t put in firebreaks. “This puts their neighbors at risk if a fire starts or gets into a state park, since they don’t allow any mechanical equipment in there,” said Lacey.
“We have many areas in California that cattle are not allowed to graze anymore, and it’s the same in other parts of the West,” said Daley. “Cattle play an important role and we need more grazing. Urban areas and our Department of Transportation are starting to use sheep and goats to control brush, and control fuels around towns. It’s a step in the right direction if people realize that grazing can help,” he said.
Lacey said we also need to revisit some of the grazing standards and guidelines. “What good does it do, for instance, to leave 1,200 pounds of residual dry matter if it’s going to burn? It won’t help whatever threatened or endangered species live in that area if it burns up.” The greatest danger for those species is fire, not grazing.
Areas that are not overgrown with brush and grass have less intense fires if they do burn. The seedbank is still there; grass can come back as soon as the fire is gone and there is some moisture.
“This is in contrast to areas with a lot of heavy brush and chaparral that burn so hot that it sterilizes the soil; the seedbank is gone and we don’t get regrowth of grasses as fast as we should,” said Lacey. This damages the watershed and leads to more erosion.