Ranchland, Cattle and Wildfire: A Report from the Rancher’s Wildfire Field Day

orange poster promoting the wildfire field dayEarly on a Friday morning the drive up the winding road to the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) took me past lush pastures and tangled oak trees. I parked my car between two pickup trucks and made my way into the building to register for the workshop, a collaboration between the California Cattle Council and SFREC to address increasing wildfire danger, facilitate discussion, and share resources to help ranchers prepare for wildfire season.

The workshop was a balanced mixture of panel discussions between ranchers, speakers from CAL FIRE, hands-on show and tell of fire equipment (hoses, extinguishers, etc.), and academic-focused presentations. Topics ranged from the economic advantage of prescribed burning to the added complications of evacuations when livestock are involved and to this year’s wildfire outlook.

Livestock evacuation challenges in wildfire emergencies

The morning began with a panel discussion between three ranchers with direct experience surviving a wildfire. They spoke of the challenges of being evacuated for up to 60 days, of being unable to return to feed and care for livestock, and of the effects of losing their closest town to fire. You could hear the lingering pain in their voices as one rancher told of losing 350 cows, and another spoke of moving all their family’s valuables into an irrigated pasture and sleeping out there on bad nights. Stories were told of ranchers being arrested (or at least threatened with arrest) for moving their cattle out of fire danger.

You could hear the frustration in their voices as they spoke of feeling as if they were on their own without help from the Forest Service and as if CAL FIRE was unnecessarily preventing them from caring for and protecting their livestock. They shared what they are doing differently after having experienced a wildfire so close to home, how they are setting up their ranches differently, more strategically now. The issues and confusion surrounding the Ag Pass program were mentioned, which became a central topic of the day that was returned to throughout various presentations and questions.

One rancher shared that they did have success with restoring timberland to how they remembered it from their past through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) funding (with the comment that the paperwork was a nightmare), but that the cost was around $1000 an acre, meaning that it isn’t a feasible option for folks who have 500 acres, for example.

One presenter shared about why evacuation is different for commercial ranchers (single trip evacuation is often not possible, access issues when it comes to owned versus leased land) and the importance of writing down and communicating your plan in case of wildfire danger, including details such as which animals you have, how many, and where they are located.

cattle grazing on a grassland with dry hillsides in the disatance
Photo from the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center

Ranch lands as fire dependent ecosystems

A retired CAL FIRE employee described how most ranches are in fire dependent ecosystems (for reference, 54% of California is fire dependent ecosystems) and how the FRI (fire return interval) has changed over the course of the foothill region’s history, from 6-11 years between fires when Indigenous Peoples were the primary human inhabitants, to 17 years during the Gold Rush, and even higher in the years after. They emphasized the need for interactive stewards managing land through methods such as prescribed fire, manual fuels reduction, and grazing. The last method, when proposed as a preventative measure on public land, is still met with a lot of resistance.

Prescribed fire for fuel reduction

During a presentation specifically about prescribed fire as a fuel reduction technique, the speaker emphasized that the hardest part is getting people to prioritize it as an efficient and valuable technique. Their presentation made a strong argument in favor of prescribed fire by demonstrating a comparison between prescribed fire and two other fuels reduction methods. They gave examples from a study of theirs, where using herbicide (glyphosate) cost approximately $50-70 per acre, mechanical removal using Cat machinery cost roughly $300-600 per acre, and prescribed burning (of Coyote Brush, in this example) cost $30 per acre. One thing to note, however, is that when planning a prescribed burn during burn season, there are many other costs involved which can bring the amount up to around $192 per acre.

One lighter moment from the day that stands out was when a presenter asked, as a theoretical question, “Are sheep valuable property?” and one rancher answered, “Some years.” The room erupted in laughter, and it made me glad that even during a workshop about something as emotionally heavy as wildfire, there were still moments of laughter.

Hard but necessary conversations

Towards the end of the day, we were given a stark piece of information from a CAL FIRE employee: that without rainfall for over a month in the Sierra foothills the fuel levels now, at the end of February, are at the level they would usually be in the middle of June.

The topics of the day that sparked the most discussion were Ag Passes and the progress to be made in terms of clarity and consistency between counties, and a frustration with CAL FIRE personnel not being local and therefore needing locals to explain the landscape and roads in a fire situation. I drove away from the workshop feeling inspired by the discussions that had taken place between ranchers, community members, and CAL FIRE. Though there are frustrations and lingering pain, there was an acknowledgement that working together and making connections is the way forward.

Rosa Brandt

Rosa Brandt

Rosa Brandt is a Program Associate for After the Fire's Before the Fire Programs